Edible Education: Growing and Learning by Hand

Green Mountain Farm-to-School brings
garden education to local classrooms

eduGrowingHand
Photo by Sarah Baughman

Christopher Coderre knows exactly what he likes about working in his elementary school’s garden.

“Getting my hands dirty!” says the fourth grade Troy School student. As he lists some of the foods he enjoys growing—carrots, lettuce, cucumbers—Coderre describes a process that for many children in the Northeast Kingdom has become commonplace thanks to an organization called Green Mountain Farm-to-School (GMFTS) and its Farm-to-School program.

“We planted the garden,” Coderre explains. “We weeded it and picked the food. Then we washed it and weighed it and took it to the kitchen.”

Coderre’s direct involvement in growing, harvesting and eating his own food represents GMFTS’ commitment to connecting students at 28 schools in northern Vermont with their food sources.

“Kids are real catalysts for change,” says Katherine Sims, GMFTS founder and executive director. “We’ll do things for our own children that we wouldn’t do for ourselves.”

Sims hopes that giving students knowledge about how to raise their own healthy food can also empower communities in this remote area, which serves the state’s highest percentages of free and reducedprice lunches. “We want the local food movement to be accessible for everyone,” says Sims.

GETTING TO KNOW GOOD FOOD

Kale and parsnip chips. Spinach salad with maple vinaigrette. Apple cranberry crisp. If kids haven’t tried foods like this before, regular “taste tests” fueled by what’s ripe in the garden and prepared by students, with help from GMFTS staff members, motivate most to at least take a bite.

“They’re much more willing to try new foods,” says Kim Hastings, principal at Orleans Elementary School. “We’ll hear kids say, ‘You have to try that, my class made it.’ Any way you can get them connected to that food is key.”

With the Farm-to-School program, connections to food begin with the most basic ingredients: a seed and dirt. GMFTS provides much of the labor involved in preparing garden plots and funding to set up grow-light stations, then involves students from all grade levels in planting and harvesting different crops. Cafeteria menus remain flexible as fresh produce rolls in.

“It’s been really wonderful, building that culture of kids trying new foods,” says Sims. “Our educators walk into school and they’re treated like rock stars. Kids ask, ‘What are we tasting today?’” Not all of the taste-test recipes meet approval, but GMFTS staff just encourage students to try something new.

“Our goal is to get over 50% giving [recipes] a thumbs up,” say GMFTS Farm-to-School Coordinators Anya Gedrath-Smith and Maia Bernstein. “If they have a hand in making it, they’re a lot more willing to try it. They have a predisposition—they really want to like it.”

According to Troy School Food Service Coordinator Mary- Lou Bonneau, who works to preserve excess garden produce to use throughout the school year, younger children are most willing taste test participants. Rosie Pallotta, food service coordinator at Orleans Elementary School, agrees.

“Kids who have grown up with the garden program from kindergarten are more likely to try new foods,” she says. Pallotta finds students now requesting foods they’d shied away from before.

“A lot of the kids wouldn’t take squash at first,” she says. “But now a lot more will. And I’m surprised how many kids ask for broccoli!” Kids aren’t the only ones whose tastes change as a result of the garden. Hastings recalls a parent commending, with some surprise, the school garden’s Harvest Dinner cuisine. “I didn’t think I’d like all that healthy food,” the parent admitted. “But it’s really delicious!”

LEARNING TO GROW GOOD FOODS

The Farm-to-School program might end on plates, but it begins on the ground, with hands-on gardening instruction facilitated at all grade levels by GMFTS staff. Students play a key role in planning the garden, collaborating to produce one design.

“Every year it’s like a blank slate,” says Sims, describing studentdesigned sunflower mazes, themed pizza gardens and meaningful discussions about how climate determines planting. “[The kids] make gardens fun and exciting,” she says. “It’s empowering kids to feel like they can impact their environment.”

“It’s definitely raised awareness,” says Hastings. “They think about the ecosystem more. It’s been fascinating to the kids to watch the food grow and then eat it.”

For students who lack home gardens, GMFTS provides a vital environment for practical learning about food production. Yet Sims also notes that a wealth of farming knowledge in the Northeast Kingdom helps the program succeed.

“We have a culture of agriculture, of supporting each other and sharing what we know,” she says. “You go into a lot of basements and see canned tomatoes. This is how we’ve always done things.”

Community members seeking to help their local school gardens can volunteer to weed and water the garden over the summer, or “grow a row” of vegetables to donate to the cafeterias.

BRINGING GARDENS INTO CLASSROOMS

Learning grows beyond the garden. With in-class workshops and after- school programs, GMFTS makes gardening a year-round academic pursuit. Workshops focusing on everything from Colonial cooking to worm science help students apply knowledge gained in the garden to their classrooms, and vice versa.

“It’s awesome to see a workshop we do as a jumping-off point for a teacher,” says Bernstein.

GMFTS also facilitates extensions of the garden program. At the Troy School, a recently built clay oven and plans for a new greenhouse promise year-round experiential learning. “That will be a huge part of our science curriculum,” says Principal Chris Young. “There are a lot of kids that need that hands-on, inquiry-based instruction.”

Special Education teacher Bob Grenon looks forward to using the greenhouse and oven as cornerstones of his teaching. “I want to take the curriculum out of a book and put it into [students’] hands,” he says.

At the Coventry Village School’s recent planting day, students put their hands to work, transplanting vegetables and poking seeds into soft ground. GMFTS staff guided each class in a planting project and by the end of the day, when students gathered under hot sun for a dedication ceremony, their garden had taken shape. Gedrath-Smith asked each grade level to share their wishes for the garden.

“We hope the plants grow big, and we hope we grow big from eating the vegetables,” said the kindergarteners. “We hope everyone treats the garden respectfully,” second graders added.

Gedrath-Smith took the small pieces of paper each wish was written on, dug a hole in the middle of the sunflower circle, and placed the papers inside.

“We hope these wishes grow along with the garden,” she said, sprinkling dirt over the hole. “[GMFTS] has made this possible for schools,” said Carinthia Grayson, a science teacher at Coventry who runs a grow lab for seed-starting in her classroom and assists a colleague who manages a composting program. “They provide the energy, expertise and labor. Realistically, without GMFTS, we’d have no garden.”

Yet ultimately, notes Sims, GMFTS wants to enable schools to continue their garden work independently. “We’d like not to be needed,” says Sims. “We’d like it to be embedded in the school culture. It takes time and practice to make that shift. There’s just more and more that can happen.”

GreenMountainFarmtoSchool.org

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