September 25, 2013

Natural Foodie: More Maine schools embedding gardens in their curricula

By AVERY YALE KAMILA

At the Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, the students make more than $6,000 a year from crops grown in the school's garden. This Saturday, the public is invited to tour the extensive garden as part of the statewide School Garden Open House Day.

click image to enlarge

The Troy Howard Middle School garden, above, is in full bloom during harvest time. It is among the school gardens across the state that will be open for tours this Saturday.

Contributed photo

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Students harvest potatoes at one of the locations on the Green School Grounds Tour.

Portland Trails photo

GREEN SCHOOL GROUNDS TOUR

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, with a celebration from noon to 2 p.m. at the Reiche School in Portland's West End featuring music, activities and food from the Kids Gone Raw team

WHERE: Schools in Portland and South Portland; ticketholders will be emailed a list of schools on the tour

HOW MUCH: $10 adults/free for kids

INFO: 775-2411; trails.org; brownpapertickets.com

SCHOOL GARDEN OPEN HOUSE DAY

WHEN: Hours vary by garden, Saturday

WHERE: Schools around the state, including gardens in Bath, Belfast, Chebeague Island, Cornville, Ellsworth, Machias, Northeast Harbor, Phippsburg, South Hiram and Waldoboro

HOW MUCH: Free

INFO: bit.ly/15GzhrK 

ALSO ON SATURDAY, the School Ground Greening Coalition hosts a related tour of nine schools in Portland and South Portland. Each school on the tour will offer activities for children, and teachers can earn continuing education credits.

The coalition, a part of Portland Trails, works to improve the area outside of schools by creating more natural, varied and unstructured play spaces. Vegetable gardens are a common feature of these landscape designs.

"These aren't just school gardens, they're outdoor learning spaces," said Laura Newman, coordinator of the School Ground Greening Coalition.

Newman went on to explain that "playground equipment meets children's gross motor needs, but doesn't provide shade, doesn't provide variety and channels kids to one type of play. Better examples would be small, loose parks with acorns and pinecones and sand with more variety to address all kinds of play, including running and sitting."

When schools incorporate diverse and less structured areas into their grounds -- even something as simple as a grassy hill -- it allows children to be more creative in their play and has other social benefits.

"If you provide this on a school ground you're going to decrease conflict and there will be less work for the nurse with injuries and for school administrators with fights," Newman said.

The effort to green school grounds is a national movement. Gardens fit into the model because they offer interesting, ever-changing environments, lend themselves to learning and encourage healthful eating habits.

"When kids have a role in shaping the environment -- such as planting and harvesting a garden -- they have a sense of ownership and connection to place and for me that's about environmental stewardship," Newman said. "Also, kids who see their connection to what they eating are going to be inherently more healthy eaters and more informed eaters."

"We have a half-acre of mixed vegetables, an orchard and flower gardens," said Jon Thurston, agricultural coordinator for RSU 20, which includes Belfast. "We have two unheated hoop houses and one 24-by-48 heated greenhouse."

The school district pays Thurston's salary and buys the oil for the greenhouse. But Thurston is able to cover the rest of the garden-related expenses from the income the students earn selling at a farm stand, to the Belfast Co-op and to the school's cafeteria.

Along the way, the students learn about plant life cycles, mapmaking, business plan writing and how to balance a checkbook, among other skills at the school where the garden is embedded into much of the curriculum. The students also gain exposure to a wide variety of vegetables (greenhouse-grown artichokes are the new favorite) and the cafeteria gains a steady supply of the freshest, most local food.

"It helps the kids," Thurston said. "First off, in middle school they've just come from grade school with recess, so they can't wait to get out here and have a project. They get a feeling of accomplishment and they feel they've done something worthwhile. Kids who aren't good at math and writing are good out here and so their self esteem goes up. It's a wonderful lab for science."

Such positive outcomes can be found wherever schools make vegetable gardening part of the course work.

"It's really an incredible outdoor laboratory for every teacher and every classroom," said Kat Coriell, board chair of the Maine School Garden Network, which organizes the annual garden open house event. "An art teacher can go out and use different materials for weaving or leaf rubbing. History teachers show how food is related to culture and history. In language arts, it's storytelling. The obvious ones are math and science."

With communities looking to reverse the obesity epidemic and improve school lunch, gardens have proliferated around the state. The Maine School Garden Network counts more than 90 school gardens in Maine, but Coriell said that number likely represents only two-thirds of the school gardens in the state.

"We've been trying for a couple years to get a handle on the number," Coriell said.

School gardens also offer students ready access to ingredients for cooking and meal planning lessons. And when they cultivate a plant from seed to harvest, they become much more likely to try the unfamiliar.

"Kids get really excited about eating vegetables," Coriell said. "It's really huge that they're invested."

The garden tours mark the end of the annual Maine Harvest Lunch Week, when schools around the state make a special effort to serve foods grown and raised in Maine. It's an event credited with helping more schools purchase food from local farmers, and at schools with gardens, some of the local food will have traveled no further than the schoolyard.

In 2002, Anne Johnson, then education coordinator at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and University of Maine at Orono professor Mary Bird founded the Maine School Garden Network, as a way to support and promote school gardens. But after Johnson died in 2004, the organization languished until 2008 when volunteers reignited the network.

Until last year, the organization was funded through MOFGA but now has a coordinator who is based in the Department of Agriculture building in Augusta, and the group is working to become an independent nonprofit. Its 12 person board of directors is looking for others to join the board.

While no longer an official program of MOFGA, Coriell said "school gardens are organic by default." Pesticide use is restricted on school grounds and a pesticide applicators license is needed even to apply controls allowed under organic certification laws. So, the kids and their teachers must learn to roll with nature's pests and ever-changing conditions.

Even having a crop wiped out by Japanese beetles is an opportunity for learning.

As Coriell said, "It's a lesson in patience and perseverance."  

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she enjoys garden-fresh vegetables and writes about health food. She can be reached at:

avery.kamila.gmail.com

Twitter/AveryYaleKamila

 

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