Shaping the local food scene through early education

A vibrant school garden literacy program does more than just teach children how vegetables grow

Kris Potter

“What is your favorite way to eat potatoes?”

The hands go up as students respond to the question.

“French Fries!” “Potato chips!” “Tater tots!”

The next question gets a less enthusiastic response.

“Where do potatoes come from?”

“Um, the grocery store?”

“Where are potatoes before they go to the grocery store?”

Faced with these questions, many students (and some adults) don’t have good answers. They have no concept of food prior to its arrival at the grocery store. Some don’t know that potatoes grow underground.

How do we as a society address this disconnection with where our food comes from, how it’s grown and who grows it?

One innovative way to address this deficit of knowledge is through school gardening programs. A school garden is an engaging way to introduce students to foods they may not be familiar with and to show them that the only reason they think they don’t like a certain fruit or vegetable is because they haven’t tried fresh local produce or had it prepared properly yet.

By incorporating the study of plants with actually planning and planting a garden, nurturing and harvesting the plants and finally eating fully ripe, fresh-from-the-garden vegetables, children become familiar with not only the great taste of fresh, locally-grown produce, but the work involved in bringing it to the table. For example, the school vegetable garden at River HomeLink has been providing this pathway to food literacy for its students since 2004.

River HomeLink is a public parent-partnered Battle Ground Public School serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The vegetable garden in the River HomeLink Outdoor Learning Space holds 16 raised vegetable beds as well as systems for vermicomposting and composting garden waste. Students may participate by enrolling in one of the gardening elective classes offered; several classroom teachers also make use of the vegetable garden as part of their curriculum. The parent partnered nature of the school means parents often attend the gardening sessions with their children, experiencing the growing, nurturing and eating “school grown” vegetables alongside their children, and making learning a multi-generational activity.

With the minimal budget allotted to the program, staff is dependent upon the generosity of community partners in providing donations, primarily in the form of seeds and plants. For instance, the Slow Foods Ark of Taste program sent bean and potato seeds. In addition to being easy to grow, saving seeds from both of these plants is easy and not only helps sustain the garden with seeds for next year, but keeps a valuable heirloom vegetable in production.

A vibrant school garden program does more than just teach children how vegetables grow. Exposing young children to a variety of locally-grown produce opens a new world of flavors, textures and colors. Students who have tasted parsnip sticks at school are likely to ask their parents for them at home. Students who have eaten broccoli straight from the garden no longer think of it as the bland, tough vegetable available in the supermarket and may ask their parents to buy some from a local farmer at the farmers market or farm stand. Parents who have participated in the work of bringing a harvest from seed to plate gain an appreciation for the work farmers put into their crops and are more aware of and willing to pay the “true cost of food.” Families who have participated in the seasonal transitions in a school garden gain the “seasonal” perspective of local produce and understand the discipline of waiting to eat local strawberries in June or local watermelon in July or local corn and peaches in August.

School gardens are the “low hanging fruit” of introducing children to locally-grown produce. They may provide the first exposure to “real” food and create a desire in students to seek out the tastes of the garden in local markets, farm stands and restaurants. Supporting school gardens as Slow Foods does makes good sense academically and economically.

Kris Potter, a master composter/recycler and gardening educator, is the founder of Family Gardening. Potter can be reached at familygardening@gmail.com or 360.695.5627.

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