To the editor: School gardens connect kids with good food

At this time of year, the anticipation begins to build toward the last day of school and many teachers find that working in the school garden, or simply growing plants in the classroom, is a welcome hands-on activity that successfully engages students with their curriculum.

Flood Brook School students planting their school gardens in 2016.

Most schools in the region have some sort of school garden, ranging from the extensive greenhouse and outdoor gardens maintained by the students in the Horticulture Program at Springfield’s River Valley Tech Center to the neat and tidy garden beds that have graced the front lawn of Green Street School in Brattleboro for over 10 years now. No school garden is too small, too new or too full of weeds to be a powerful educational space. Curricular connections abound, from the more obvious hands-on engagement with plant and life sciences, to creative language arts lessons in which students write garden-inspired haiku poetry.

The benefits of school gardens reach far beyond the curriculum connections, however. By involving kids in the process of growing fruits and vegetables, they are far more likely to integrate those same foods into their regular diets.

Steve Hed, Food Service director and sustainability coordinator at Putney Central School, has seen kids turn their noses up at roasted Brussels sprouts more than a time or two, but, after working with a 5th grade class to harvest them from their school garden in the fall, he saw a huge increase in the number of kids who accepted them on their lunch tray — at least among the 4th graders! Many school cafeterias are able and willing to accept student-grown produce for use in the school breakfast, lunch or healthy snack programs. This works best with as much advance warning as possible, or even better, when the food service staff is included in the planning of the garden.

A school garden is an invaluable resource in any effort to strengthen the connection between the classroom and the cafeteria, though this isn’t to say that schools need to take on a full-scale production garden to ensure that students have access to local, fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables in their school meals.

We are fortunate to live in an area with dozens of diversified vegetable farms and orchards, and Food Connects operates a Food Hub (Windham Farm & Food) that connects more than 30 food producers with more than 75 buyers, including many schools within a 30-mile radius of Brattleboro. When schools have a garden, where students can learn about and engage with new fruits and vegetables, cafeteria staff can buy more of these products from local farms, and enjoy convenient delivery, with the confidence of knowing that the kids will be more likely to actually eat these delicacies once they hit the lunch trays.

Food Connects has a long history of supporting school gardens in and around Windham County. Back in 2007, when the Brattleboro Town School District was awarded one of the state’s first Farm to School Grants, gardens were established at each school that are still thriving today. Our own Katherine Jandernoa was instrumental in engaging teachers, school staff, parents and community volunteers in these gardens.

Today, with so many school gardens in the region, Food Connects offers an annual School Garden Planning Retreat each spring, and also provides technical assistance on a school-by-school basis. This year, we hosted two retreats: one in Brattleboro and another in Chester. We hosted 25 teachers, school staff and volunteers who will be working to support gardens at area schools this year. Thanks to generous support from High Mowing Seeds and the Vermont Community Garden Network, each participating school received organic seed packets to get their gardens started this spring.

Volunteering with school gardens is a wonderful way to connect with your local school in a meaningful way, and many schools are in need of support over the summer to help keep up with weeding and watering. Please contact us (Katherine@FoodConnects.org) to learn more about volunteer opportunities with your local schools.

Food Connects delivers locally produced food as well as educational and consulting services aimed at transforming local food systems. For more information, please visit: www.FoodConnects.org

Helen Rortvedt
Food Connects Farm to School Programs

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