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School Gardens: Teaching Kids a Love of Food

Food & Party Jan 25, 2010

The summer gardening program at Dillard Academy in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

1School Gardens: CASTLES, Dillard Academy, North Carolina

When Cheryl Alston was tasked with helping underperforming students raise their test scores at Dillard Academy's Center for Academic, Social, Technology, Literacy, and Economic Solutions (CASTLES) she didn't start with worksheets and drills. She got her students outside, gardening. "I had to find a hook, something not traditional, different, exciting." CASTLES is an after-school and summer school program created to help struggling K-6 students in this socioeconomically-challenged area in rural North Carolina.

Thanks to CASTLES' 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, a partnership with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), and a local church with available land, and a growing number of other partnerships, the students at CASTLES work some 3 1/2 acres of peas, tomatoes, eggplant, greens, strawberries, cabbage, cucumbers, and herbs. They sell some of the produce at a community mini-market and cook some of it for themselves using recipes gleaned from grandparents. They even write and perform songs about their garden, which they recently performed at a W. K. Kellogg Foundation conference in San Jose, California.

Alston, who previously taught high school chemistry partly through a small classroom garden, adapted curriculum for the garden. She knew she had something when children enrolled in the summer gardening program tested out of CASTLES in subsequent years. "This is it!," she said to herself, "This is what we've got to do!" But as children bring home the lessons about cooking and gardening to their parents, Alston is hoping the program does more than raise test scores. She's hoping that students will teach their parents and then the community to eat healthier. "I'm waiting to hear about fewer cases of diabetes!" she laughs.

Cooking With Kids program in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

2School Cooking Classes: Cooking With Kids, New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico is known for its rich culinary tradition, but beyond the hotels, art galleries, and restaurants there are communities struggling to find fresh produce and a healthy way of eating. Cookbook author and restauranteur Lynn Walters founded the non-profit Cooking With Kids: Hands-On Food and Nutrition Education in partnership with the Santa Fe Public Schools in 1995. What started as a small pilot program now serves over 4,450 Pre-K through 6th grade kids at 12 low-income schools.

Through the program, which takes place within the usual school day, students learn how different fruits and vegetables are grown. Local chef volunteers (like Rocky Durham, Fernando Olea, Martin Rios, and Johnny Vollertson) teach the students how to cook using fresh, affordable foods and recipes from a wide range of cultures. Students not only learn about nutrition and cooking, but also supplement their instruction in math, social studies, and science; the curriculum is tied to New Mexico's state standards.

Walters was originally brought into the schools to improve their lunch program. She started holding brainstorming sessions and brought in chefs, thinking, "If the food is beter they'll eat it." Walters quickly learned this was not so simple and that she had to build acceptance of new foods by having the students participate in the preparation of the food as well. Now Cooking With Kids meals are served in the lunchroom twice a month. The program draws some 1,200 parent volunteers, so the lessons are finding their way home.

Check out the CitySprouts video.

3School Gardens: CitySprouts, Massachusetts

Since 2000 CitySprouts has been working with the Cambridge, Massachusetts public schools to develop and implement school garden programs. The program administrators have done an impressive job of building the institutional infrastructure to keep CitySprouts thriving, and this makes a significant difference. The garden programs are integrated into the school core curriculum and teachers are provided with at least three hours of training in the gardens. CitySprouts even offers an environmental stewardship and community leadership internship program for middle school through college students.

Currently there is a CitySprouts program in 10 out of the 12 K-8 schools, with plans to cover all schools this fall. And the garden curriculum goes beyond science; lessons extend into math, literacy, social studies and art, plus hands-on instruction on sustainable agriculture, the food cycle, and the natural environment.

As a community-minded program, CitySprouts offers after school and summer "Drop-Ins," workshops open to the community on soil testing and garden cooking. In 2008 these workshops attracted more than 2,900 visits. As part of the program, the schools host farmer visits and cafeteria tastings of food grown in the garden—and speaking of the cafeteria, CitySprouts is working with Food Services to bring healthier, more local food into school lunches. It's an ambitious, far-reaching program, but thoughtfully designed to provide plenty of support, buy-in, and benefits for the entire community.


Organic garden at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast Washington DC.

4School Gardens: Thurgood Marshall Academy, Southeast Washington, DC

High school biology teacher Sarah Johnson started an organic garden two years ago at Thurgood Marshall Academy with two other teachers. It actually started as an outgrowth of the student green club she advised. Realizing that finding and eating nutritious food was a challenge for the students, Johnson applied for an Earth Day grant and a Washington Parks and People grant to build the first raised garden beds. Over the summer she taught a summer school class on "where our food comes from" and in the afternoon green club members met every single day to garden, harvest, and cook.

To enable multi-disciplinary lessons in the garden the students have planted tobacco and cotton for the history teachers, for example, and plants mentioned in classic literature. In the garden cooking classes (using equipment from the lab) Johnson has found that "you'll really inspire a desire in students to continue cooking if you don't keep bound to a recipe." She give her students an idea, like stir fry, and then lets them decide how to do it. Beyond the classroom she and her colleagues are working with DC Hunger Solution to get fresh food (including the garden's produce) sold in the corner store across from school. Meanwhile, the gardeners sell some of their produce and some composting worm casings at farmers' markets around the city.

Johnson says the school administrators took some convincing. Limited space was an issue, "but essentially we were just tenacious in getting it done, and now the administration is very excited about what we're doing." A common concern for school administrators is continuity—who will keep the garden going from year to year as staff and students change? TMA's garden program is young, but so far the excitement and commitment of the students, who come in early and stay late daily, has impressed everyone.

Photo from TIME for Kids.

5School Gardens: Woodland Elementary West, Illinois

Every spring at Woodland Elementary West, some 400 second-grade students plant vegetable seedlings in their classrooms. Over the months they will tend these seedlings, transplant them outdoors in the school garden, continue weeding and watering, and eventually harvest enough produce for class samples and a donation to the town food pantry.

Woodland's program was initiated by the principal (now retired) and has been maintained by parents, administrators, and teachers. The school is fortunate to have a very large, campus-style school with ample space for gardening. Through the summer day-campers and parents tend the garden so that when 2nd graders return as 3rd graders in the fall they can harvest their produce. The school uses sustainable practices, like fish emulsion fertilizer and dish soap to repel aphids. The absence of chemicals means kids can touch the plants during tours and spend class time and recess in the garden.

In the last two years the school has donated 1,500 pounds of vegetables to the food pantry. "Pantries always have a need for 'fresh' food because it's healthier than the usual canned staples," says parent volunteer and gardening author Ann Nagro. "These students are not only learning sustainable agriculture and healthy eating habits, they are also learning that they can change their community."

6School Gardens: 24th Street Schoolyard Garden, California

24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, used to have a one-acre blacktop parking lot. The surrounding neighborhood of West Adam is a food desert, meaning groceries with fresh produce are scarce. Now that lot is a thriving garden with an outdoor kitchen featuring a pitfire pizza oven. Thanks to the support of teachers, administrators, parents, and some key community members like restauranteur Nancy Silverton, the 24th Street Schoolyard Garden is a source of fresh produce for the student and, increasingly, the community.

Through a variety of classes children in all grades spend some time in the garden each week, whether they are gardening or having a science lesson. Package designer Laurie Dill teaches 5th graders herb identification and even shows the kids how to package the herbs to sell to local chefs, who then come in to do cooking demonstrations. She notes that while most children in the class start out knowing next to nothing about where their food comes from, "once you get them talking about it and cooking they start making connections with what their families make. Kids are eating and tasting vegetables all the time in the garden. They take it home, often literally."

24th Street is the prototype school for the Garden School Foundation, which works in partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District to bring gardens and kitchens to schools (among other goals). The foundation does fundraisers like an Eat the Magazine dinner organized by Edible Los Angeles at Grace and supporting businesses and organizations make both financial, labor, and in-kind donations. But the garden's success began with the dedication of a small group of people. "If you can get the one receptive teacher the others will follow," Dill says. "It all depends on principals and teachers who see the benefits."


Cookshop Classroom in New York, New York.

7School Cooking Classes: CookShop Classroom, New York

On a warm May day two kindergarten classrooms at Brooklyn's Teunis E. Bergen School (PS 9) were infused with the grassy scent of fresh-cut vegetables and fruit. Students in one room were carefully slicing apples, green beans, cucumbers, carrots, green onions, and red bell peppers with plastic knives while students in the classroom next door practiced their writing and reading skills as they discussed a recipe for lettuce wraps. Moments later they would all be enthusiastically cramming the vegetable-filled lettuce wraps into their mouths, a spectacle rarely seen among any children.

CookShop Classroom is a series of lessons centering around 10 different fruits and vegetables. One week the class learns about a particular food: where and how it's grown, the different parts of the plant, how it gets to the city, what it looks and smells like and how it is typically prepared.

In these hands-on lessons students touch and sample the produce. The following week students prepare a dish using the fruit or vegetable they learned about the previous week. This experience is exactly what researchers say induces children to eat their vegetables: repeated exposure breeds familiarity, which leads to acceptance. Even better, as children learn to accept the CookShop vegetables they also learn to be more adventurous with other foods.

cooking with kids food slideshow

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