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Southside Elementary Celebrates the Harvest

Maria and Wes watering their Earthboxes.

Larsen showing off his cherry tomatoes.


Little green thumbs are growing strong in the Southside Elementary School Eco Garden. They are harvesting fresh produce and—with every shovel of Sarasota soil—digging deeper into what sustainable living truly means.

Located west of the school’s cafeteria and adjacent to the first-grade classrooms, this 6-year-old garden helps students learn experientially about food production and nutrition.

There are 10 plots; about 20 blueberry bushes; crops such as sugar snap peas, chocolate mint, watermelons, and pineapples; as well as rain barrels and composting supplies. Jennifer Verhagen, a Southside mother of third-grader Kaes and fifth-grader Kean, became the garden’s chair last year. In December, she helped coordinate an event with teacher John Freeman’s class and restaurateur Sean Murphy (of the Beach Bistro and the three Eat Here restaurants). The Southside students created a sit-down dinner at Eat Here Siesta Key using ingredients from their garden, and Murphy’s team prepared the meal.

“In an effort to teach our kids a deeper meaning of the phrase ‘farm-to-table,’ we worked with Sean to organize a special dinner for Mr. Freeman’s class. Sean had done this at Anna Maria Elementary and he wanted to see how it would work at Southside,” Verhagen says. “We invited the children’s families to come have the meal for the evening. Like Sean said, the kids will remember this for the rest of their lives.”


The “Garden Supper” menu included a light green salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuces in a house vinaigrette; tomato soup with brochette and olive tapenade; free-range chicken dressed with rosemary and served with garlic chive mashed potatoes and sautéed Brussels sprouts with bacon; and vanilla ice cream topped with caramelized brown sugar crisp for dessert.

“This was a wonderful opportunity for the children to learn where their food comes from and how to create a more sustainable lifestyle,” Murphy says. “That’s what we’re all about at Eat Here.”

Eat Here and the Eco Garden promote the same idea: to bring food production back into local hands. So why not start with the small ones?


Clockwise: A watermelon starting to grow; Maria and Anna harvesting an eggplant; John Freeman with Jen Verhagen, Dianne Banyard, and his fourth and fifth grade class; Elizabeth tending to her cauliflower plant; Aidan tasting his fresh basil.

“Children’s faces light up when they see a beautiful bud beginning to grow. They get excitement from seeing the colors of the tomatoes and eggplants emerging from the greenery,” Verhagen says. “Children who have never tried broccoli before begin to chew on fresh florets straight from the garden.”

It is an equally inspiring experience for educators like Freeman.

“I really try to inform my students about nutrition by making them more aware of what they put into their bodies,” Freeman says. “I feel this garden will play a big role in creating a society that is more eco-conscious and healthy.”

Eat Here: 240 Avenida Madera, Sarasota; 941-346-7800;

Southside Elementary School Eco Garden:





From top: Kean and Anna sharing their bounty
with Chef Peter Arpke; Enjoying some tomoto soup;
Nick tasting the appetizer; Owner Sean Murphy
presenting the local menu.


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