By Arianne Corbett, RD 2014-03-27 09:32:35
Digging In Interested in starting the school garden of your dreams? Here’s what you need to know from the ground up. Many children across the United States have never planted a seed or watched something grow. However, you may notice this changing, as a rising number of school gardens are popping up in districts from coast to coast. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to School Census found that 13% of respondents had an edible school garden. These gardens are offering students a hands-on chance to learn the origins of the food on their plates. They also provide experiential learning opportunities in a wide array of subjects, including math, science, nutrition, health and environmental stewardship. Growing evidence shows that school gardens enhance academic achievement, promote healthy lifestyles and teach important life skills such as teamwork, volunteerism and leadership. Deborah Kane, national director of the USDA Farm to School Program, explains why USDA strongly supports the growing number of school garden programs. “At USDA, we very much view gardens as a key tool for helping children to make healthy choices,” she notes. “The child that has planted, tended and then harvested kale in the school garden is much more likely to choose kale in the school cafeteria. Gardens also change a school’s physical learning environment, giving children additional visual cues about health and wellness and educators another dynamic classroom to teach in.” School gardens across the country have a few basic similarities—plants, weeds, the need for water and sunlight. However, the way a garden is designed, what is planted, who tends it and what becomes of the harvest can vary greatly from site to site. Benefit from these words of wisdom from school nutrition professionals blazing the school garden trail as you begin your journey to a successful school garden of your own. Search for Support Every garden needs dedicated individuals with passion and a willingness to put in a little elbow grease. Joni Ralph, supervisor of school nutrition programs at La Crosse (Wis.) School District, explains, “Getting a garden up and running and growing is really challenging; there are lots of lessons learned along the way.” Her advice for those considering a school garden? “Make sure you have enough community support for sustainability,” she emphasizes. Director of School Nutrition Lisa Sims and Manager Mishiele Coomes of Daviess County Schools, Owensboro, Ky., completely agree. They began their garden project with a steering committee. “The steering committee met to discuss our goals for the garden. We invited school nutrition managers, custodians, teachers, parents, students, a horticulture expert from the local extension office and a farmer, and we consulted the school maintenance staff,” Sims reports. A well-run committee is the backbone of a successful garden and can help provide expertise, access to funding, donations and other in-kind support—and it may turn out to be your core of volunteer support. Sims and Coomes leveraged the relationships with local farmers they had developed, so that in addition to providing expertise, one farmer donated soil for the garden beds, and another donated seeds to get the garden started. Be Outcome Oriented Identify the intended outcomes of your garden program early in the process. Will the garden supply significant amounts of produce to the school nutrition program? Will the garden be used solely for nutrition education? Or do you hope for something in between, providing a few ingredients for recipes or filling some slots on the salad bar, while helping students get excited about the idea of fresh fruits and vegetables? By identifying the goals upfront, all of your energy can be put into the successful outcome you desire. Kelsey Gartner, RD, nutrition and garden coordinator, and Nicole Shaw, foodservice supervisor for the Great Valley School District in Malvern, Pa., have their sights set on a garden that will offset produce costs. “We did the math and figured out that our garden produced roughly $5,000 worth of fresh vegetables and fruit from June to November,” explains Shaw. The key to success was a partnership with the local Chester County Food Bank to provide funding and expertise in the construction of an unheated high tunnel greenhouse, which provided protection from the elements, extended the growing season and greatly increased production. Back in Daviess County, the focus is on “seed to plate” nutrition education. “We wanted to give our students the opportunity to plant a seed in the ground and be involved from the very beginning,” details Lisa Sims. Focus on Design A school garden or greenhouse can be anything you want it to be. Big or small. Simple or elaborate. In-ground, raised beds or in containers. It can include benches, reading nooks or picnic tables. The design is up to you. Enlist your garden committee in brainstorming design ideas. Students can even create design plans as a class assignment. There are a few key requirements, however, to consider when selecting your site. Most flowers and vegetables need a minimum of six hours of full sunlight each day. Check your potential site for sun exposure at different times of the day and varying times of the year, if possible. Shady areas may not support the plants you wish to grow but can make great spaces for observation and teaching areas on hot days. Be sure your garden has easy access to a water source. Water is essential and should be close by to support regular watering by your students, coordinators and volunteers. Look for a site with good drainage and avoid steep slopes. If that is not possible, consider raised beds. If reasonable, locate your garden in a place that is visible from and accessible to classrooms. This will add both convenience and security and keep the garden at the forefront of attention. Contact your local health department and county extension office to help determine requirements for food and soil safety. Volunteers may be required to undergo food safety or Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) training. Also, you may need to have the soil tested for lead or other potential toxins. The types of plants you grow will vary greatly depending on the purpose of your garden, its size and design and your climate. Search the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map (http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov) to learn the plants likely to thrive in your area. For your first garden, try those that are relatively easy and hardy, like lettuce, tomatoes and zucchini. Factor in your overall intentions. Offering nutrition education during the school year? Consider plants that will come to harvest in late spring or in the fall. Supplying produce for school lunch or summer meals? Pick items with student acceptability. “Ask yourself what the students are going to eat and what is practical within your labor constraints,” suggests Annette Derouin, SNS, school nutrition director for Willmar (Minn.) Public Schools. Some plants can be started in the classroom. Great Valley’s Shaw and Gartner provide seed kits to interested classrooms; these kits contain soil, a tray, seeds, directions and a flyer about the nutritional benefits of the plants. The seeds spend about six to eight weeks in the classroom; in the beginning of May, a school-wide planting day is scheduled, reports Shaw. In Joni Ralph’s Wisconsin district, the school nutrition staff saves empty milk cartons and provides them, along with seeds and soil to an afterschool program. Begin to Budget Evaluate both the one-time garden construction costs and recurring expenses. One-time expenditures include soil, wood (if building raised beds), a fence, a hose, tools, a shed, etc. Recurring costs include compost, mulch, seeds, water, professional development and training, labor (if not all volunteer) and educational materials. Once the budget is established, fundraising must begin. Many of these expenses may be covered through donations from families, local businesses, in-kind support and expertise and even established partners such as local community organizations, food banks and farm-to-school relationships. Look to those partners first, as well as national organizations and agencies offering grants. State agencies and local cooperative extension offices also may help you find and secure the funding necessary. Daviess County’s Coomes recommends something as simple as using Google to search for “school garden grants.” “There are tons of grants for this online,” she emphasizes. Roll With the Punches Expect the unexpected! Willmar Public Schools’ Annette Derouin teamed up with an eager science teacher to turn an unused greenhouse at a local technology college into a thriving school garden. When Derouin offered advice on good harvests for the school lunch program, kohlrabi wasn’t exactly on the list. But “An entire half of the greenhouse was kohlrabi that first year! As I expected, it was not a student favorite,” she recounts. The next year, they went back to the drawing board and filled the space with a variety of greens like arugula, dandelion and lettuce. These results have been phenomenal! Now garden-fresh greens fill the salad bar and are incorporated into such student favorites as tacos. Student enthusiasm now extends to the entire meal program. Cultivate Core Champions Recruiting and retaining volunteers and coordinators to build and maintain your garden is a key component in ensuring it thrives. In the Hopkins (Minn.) School District, School Nutrition Director Barb Mechura identified a garden champion for each of her district’s eight school gardens. These include teachers, parents, master gardeners, a school nurse and a principal. While the champions take responsibility for the operation of the garden (planting, maintenance, harvesting, etc.), “We help them find grants, find the seedlings, create curriculum and support them in every way,” explains Mechura. When consistent student support to maintain Willmar’s greenhouse became problematic, Derouin hired a college student part-time. Remember that the summer months can be a challenge for any school garden. Great Valley’s school nutrition operation runs a summertime Adopt-the-Garden program where a family or organization agrees to care for the garden for one week. Technology can help you round up volunteers. In La Crosse, the school garden advocates keep a photo timeline on Facebook to keep the community engaged (www.facebook.com/SmartEats4Kids). Next up? A new web-based system that will allow parents and volunteers to sign up online for shifts. (Existing programs like SignUpGenius.com can prove helpful in this regard.) However you choose to staff your garden, be sure to show your appreciation and share success. Make room in the budget for an annual garden celebration or harvest festival. Use photos of kids in the garden as thank-you notes for volunteers and donors. Recognize hard work on websites, social media sites and in your cafeterias. A little pat on the back can go a long way toward keeping individuals motivated. Grow Awareness If you are using the garden to educate students and reap the rewards in your meal program, work with teachers to purchase a garden-based curriculum or invite a local chef to host cooking demos using the garden harvest. Great Valley’s Gartner and Shaw host a regular “farmer’s market” in the cafeteria, offering samples of new items like butternut squash pizza or their now-famous Parmesan kale chips. “Not all of the kids will take it, but all kids in Great Valley know what kale is,” Shaw reports. Marketing is essential. Whether garden produce is used whole as ingredients in recipes, menu offerings, salad bar selections and taste tests or processed into items like pickles, salsa or marinara sauce, let everyone know about it! Add signage. Send out a press release regarding garden plantings and events. Post details on your department’s website and add pictures to Facebook posts and Twitter messages. Track Your Success Keeping track of your milestones is essential for the long-time support of your garden. Monitor the number of students involved and the hours they spend in the garden. Measure the pounds of produce you harvest, the different varieties of plants and how much that produce might be worth on the open market. Knowing the data behind your garden can help you tell your story and make the case for future funding, support and buy-in. Above all else, have fun, and don’t give up! Carol Barker, assistant director of child nutrition for Auburn (Wash.) School District, sums it up: “It takes a lot of work and a lot of commitment. But when you have kids that have never seen what corn looks like on a cob or [who don’t] know that carrots grow with green on top, it’s so fun to watch them as they learn. That is the real treat.” Arianne Corbett is managing director of Leading Health, LLC, in Arlington, Va., and a former manager of nutrition advocacy at SNA. Photos courtesy of Daviess County (Ky.) Schools; Great Valley School District, Malvern, Pa.; and La Crosse (Wis.) School District. Check out www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent for a list of grant programs, funding sources and other resources.
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