How many times have you heard a parent say, “I can’t get my kids to eat vegetables!” While this is, unfortunately, sometimes true, over the last two years as a FoodCorps Service Member at Hyalite Elementary School in Bozeman, I’ve heard AND experienced the exact opposite. Just last week, I had to ask a kindergartner to STOP eating spinach. He was picking it from the school gardens and shoving it into his mouth so fast that I feared he would strip every plant of its leaves, leaving none for others to try. What a quandary—having to ask a child to stop eating his vegetables!
Every day, I have the privilege of helping youth form enduring relationships with real food – through lessons in the school gardens, cooking classes, field trips to local farms, or taste-tests paired with nutrition education. I’ve come to believe that connecting kids to where their food comes from, in a hands-on, engaging outdoor environment, can be a key to creating healthy, sustainable communities. When a kindergartner plants the spinach seed, waters it, watches it sprout and grow, and finally, harvests it straight from the ground, he or she has a personal connection to the leafy green and is therefore more likely to try it – and even devour it – as I have witnessed many times.
Watching kids shove this calcium- and vitamin-rich super-food into their mouths, then ask for seconds or thirds, has convinced me of the power of school gardens to foster lifelong healthy eating habits. The students say it best: “You just made me love spinach! I used to hate it, but this is the BEST spinach I’ve ever had!”
And it’s not just spinach. One parent asked me, “Are you the one planting with the students? My son wouldn’t TOUCH vegetables and now he’s raving about radishes!” After the students made a salad using kale from the gardens, another parent told me that her son wouldn’t eat anything green before this but now he likes kale so much that he wants it every day!
Our hands-on approach to growing, preparing, and tasting vegetables has translated to the school lunch program as well. Teachers report that their students choose a wider variety of fruits and vegetables and are more willing to try unfamiliar foods than they were a year ago. Given the chance, kids can be much more adventurous tasters than we give them credit for!
In addition to encouraging kids to embrace fruits and vegetables, our school gardens help foster an understanding and appreciation of the natural world. Sitting beneath the towering sunflowers in this outdoor classroom, we feel the rough potato leaves and the smooth flower petals, listen to bees pollinating our flowers, hunt for bugs with magnifying glasses, smell mint, sage, and thyme, and taste crisp, spicy rainbow radishes. Learning is brought to life as every sense is engaged.
Caring for plants in the school garden also instills the principles of environmental stewardship. It’s delightful to watch as third graders take ownership of their cabbage plants by naming them, checking on them at every recess, and proudly showing them to their parents. These cabbages were part of a math lesson in which students measured their plant’s height and diameter every week—just one example of garden integration with the Common Core Curriculum Standards.
Here in Montana, a challenge with our garden program is that the school year doesn’t overlap with the main growing season. In an effort to continue garden learning over the summer, I teach a Junior Master Gardener program for third through fifth graders. Following a farm to school theme, the students learn basic gardening skills and how to harvest and prepare meals with the fresh produce. We also visit local farms and help harvest the Gallatin Valley Food Bank’s gardens, which make it possible for everyone in the community to enjoy fresh food. Besides being fun and useful, the Junior Master Gardener program undoubtedly lessens what teachers call “summer learning loss” – the students stay engaged in the science of the growing cycle, practice their math skills while converting recipes, and improve their writing by keeping a garden journal.
And next month, we’ll be building a greenhouse at Hyalite Elementary to extend learning opportunities into the school year. This project is a collaboration between our 4th and 5th grade Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, club and many local organizations. Plans are underway to use the greenhouse to continue to integrate lessons with our state and national core curriculum.
My time with FoodCorps at Hyalite Elementary has reinforced my belief in the value of outdoor, experiential learning. If it were up to me, every school in Montana–and across the country–would have a program like this!
To see what other FoodCorps Service Members are doing across the state to connect kids with real food, visit our blog at montanafoodcorps.org.
I’m Erin Jackson for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO is a grassroots membership organization serving as Montana’s hub for sustainable communities: inspiring change, connecting local leaders, and building capacity for success across the state for 40 years. If you’d like to get involved, check us out at www.aeromt.org. That’s a-e-r-o-m-t-dot-o-r-g.
This commentary originally aired on June 19, 2014 on Montana Public Radio.