At Creekside Intermediate School students compare the taste of red and white beet chips. At Haisley Elementary students taste collard greens during “Taste it Thursdays.” And at Perry Early Learning Center students pick cherry tomatoes from the vine. Throughout Washtenaw County, school gardens are blooming this summer. With support from parents, teachers, principals, and a few paid coordinators, these gardens will be ready to harvest when students return to school.
While each school garden organizes itself differently, the goal is the same: get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. It’s an important goal as 88 percent of children in Washtenaw County eat less than the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. A school garden is a good way to introduce fresh food into a young person’s diet.
With PTOs involved, school gardens thrive
At Haisley Elementary School on Ann Arbor’s west side the PTO is responsible for jumpstarting the garden. Now in its fifth year, Haisley’s garden has three wheelchair-accessible beds in addition to 14 raised beds. Parent of a Haisley student, Jen Sopoci, coordinates the all volunteer-led garden. “During the school year kids skip over to the garden for recess. A parent is available to help students with tasks like weeding or spreading mulch. The kids love tasting the vegetables right from the garden,” says Sopoci.
In addition to recess, teachers who want to have their classes plant in the garden can sign up. “This year we did a math unit with third graders on area and did a square-foot garden that supplied the school with salad for a field day,” says Sopoci. While parents do some fundraising and grant writing, the school’s PTO supports the garden financially with a yearly budget.
Additional engagement comes from Principal Kelly House, who includes garden updates in her weekly e-mail to families. There’s always a family willing to sign up for a summer volunteer garden shift.
Making garden to cafeteria a reality
In just its first growing season, the Sullivan Memorial Garden at Dexter’s Creekside Intermediate School harvested 500 pounds of produce. About 100 pounds of that was used in Dexter’s school cafeterias, with the remainder going to Dexter’s “kitchen classrooms” where students learned about healthy cooking.
Through a partnership with 5 Healthy Towns Foundation, the district employs Lisa Babe, its farm to school coordinator. Babe oversees the gardens and works with the food and nutrition staff to incorporate produce from local farmers and school gardens into the lunch menus. Under Babe’s leadership teachers, parents and students help maintain the garden. During the summer parents sign up to weed and water and can harvest any produce for their families.
“To address high obesity rates in western Washtenaw County, 5 Healthy Towns set a goal for Dexter students to eat more fruits and vegetables,” says Babe. “Educating students about where their food comes from and engaging them in growing the food themselves is a big step toward achieving this goal.”
Healthy eating habits start in early childhood
Principal Dr. Connie Thompson knows healthy eating habits start early in life. That is why she fully supports the Perry Early Learning Center school garden. The garden, located in Ypsilanti’s south side, has gone through many iterations over the years, but now, with the support of local gardening nonprofit Growing Hope, the garden is thriving.
Stewarded by a long-time community member, known as Mr. Agnew, the garden is both an opportunity to educate preschool through first grade students about healthy eating, and a place where families can access fresh produce. “A lot of people in this neighborhood see our garden as a community space. They hear about the garden from neighbors and come pick the vegetables for their families,” says Thompson.
Growing Hope partners with Perry teachers to use the garden as an outdoor classroom and more and more are incorporating garden activities into their lessons. At times, Agnew greets the students in the garden and shares tips on planting and harvesting the produce.
Mr. Agnew’s vision is a farm stand next to the garden where families can come pick up vegetables. For Thompson, she’d love to see more opportunities for students to learn and explore the garden through harvesting, tasting and preparing the produce in the classroom.
9am-5pm | Monday-Friday
Growing Hope, 922 W. Michigan Ave. | Ypsilanti
734-786-8401 | growinghope.net