Stoddard School Champions School Garden
Submitted by Laura White, James Faulkner Elementary School
“What’s kale?” puzzled a second grader, pointing to a box on the page with the words, “I have tried kale.” It was the first day of school and the 32 second, third, fourth and fifth graders at James Faulkner Elementary School were doing a get-to-know you activity called “People Bingo” in which students mingle and find peers for whom certain statements are true. While a few students had indeed tried kale, it turned out that a large number of students had the same question, “What is kale?” Not only had they not tried kale before, they had no idea what it was. Luckily our school garden was filled to the brim with lush green kale plants (4 raised beds of them to be exact), so it wouldn’t be long before “kale” joined the ranks of our shared vocabulary- and hopefully diets!
At James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard, our vision states that we see students “working on real projects.” One way we work to incorporate this into the day-to-day life of the school is through our school garden. A garden provides numerous opportunities for academic integration at all grade levels, whether it is calculating the volume of a raised bed, making change at the dismissal-time farm stand, reading recipes in order to cook our home-grown produce or learning about the prepositions “above” and “below” while studying the parts of the potato plant.
Yet the value of these garden experiences goes beyond supporting students’ academic growth. Our school garden provides the foundation for teaching healthy habits and the skills that support those habits. You can’t learn to play baseball by reading a book. The same goes for health. The garden has also become a center of our school community, bringing together staff, families and volunteers.
Every Monday afternoon, our older students (2nd through 5th graders) participate in multiage garden activity groups for 50 minutes. Groups range in size from 5-7 students and are led by teachers, para educators or other staff members. Occasionally we enlist parents to assist or lead groups. Students participate in garden-related planting, harvesting, cooking, art or construction projects. The kindergartners and first graders also regularly experience the garden during their own garden activity time.
As educators and families trying to get our children to choose an apple or carrot over Oreos or Doritos, we are competing against powerful marketing interests. Children are barraged with advertising pushing unhealthy food choices. One effective strategy to get kids to eat their vegetables is to involve kids in the planting, care, harvest and preparation of vegetables. Children are more likely to try what they helped produce. Of course there’s also the ripple effect of positive peer pressure, when one young chef encourages her classmates to try the massaged kale salad she helped make, insisting, “It is sooooo good! You’ll love it!”
We try to choose recipes that appeal to kids, will expand their palates, and are relatively easy to prepare. Therefore we don’t put a lot of energy into getting kids to try strawberries, but instead provide multiple experiences with foods like winter squash or kale. We choose recipes that are manageable to carry out at school, and thus also more likely make it onto the menu at home. Most of our families have busy schedules. Finding time to cook from scratch is challenging. One crowd pleaser and easy-to-prepare snack has been kale chips. In fact kale chips became a garden activity choice three weeks in a row. The floor by the bus lines was littered with crispy, dark-green crumbs after a dismissal-time feeding frenzy as we passed around bowls of kale chips fresh out of the oven. But, who’s to complain about a little mess? Now all our kids have tried kale- and many of them like it!
Teachers have too much on their plate to be full-time farmers as well, so collaboration and support from staff, parents and volunteers has been essential to sustaining a school garden program. At James Faulkner Elementary School we are grateful for the support of many people. Perhaps at the heart of the program, our school custodian Ray Lagasse is a long-time champion of the garden, doing much of its maintenance, tilling and summer care. He is always thinking about the garden program, and offering up ideas, such as pushing for a fence to keep deer out of the garden, or planting a few apple trees. Ray has a warm, relaxed personality and loves working with the students- and they love working with him! He volunteers his time to lead garden groups with students during the school day and has led an after-school garden club.
Another community resource our garden program has been blessed with is Marilyn Chamberlain, known as “Grandma Marilyn” to all our students. Marilyn runs a CSA farm in Stoddard, and her granddaughter is currently a fourth grader at the elementary school. An outspoken advocate for food education, she invites our students to help on her farm during the summer, donates seedlings to us, and has even pickled our extra cucumbers for school fundraisers.
Finally, last year the school made a radical shift in the lunch program, and now our home-grown produce is ending up on school lunch trays. Previously the school contracted to have lunch trucked in from Keene. These prepared lunches were then reheated and served to students. But our school had a high-quality commercial kitchen, and Principal Mark Taft wondered, “Why couldn’t we prepare our own lunches on site, cooked from scratch, for equal or less cost?” Eventually he launched an in-house lunch program, hiring Stoddard resident Debbie Smith to run the program. Debbie’s home-cooked meals have increased school lunch participation 25 %. Having grown up with a big garden, Debbie isn’t afraid to get creative to use our school garden’s excess produce. She has been known to sneak zucchini into the desserts- and not just zucchini bread- have you tried zucchini crisp? Broccoli grown a few feet from the school finds itself on student lunch trays in the pasta salad or as finger food.
While now well-established, we realize our garden program has a lot of room to grow. We have fantasized about ideas like starting a summer camp which incorporates the garden, working more closely with Debbie Smith to have students design recipes for the lunch program or facilitate taste tests for a “Vegetable of the Month”, and of course numerous ideas to incorporate the garden more fully into the academic curriculum.
As we look forward however, we also like to celebrate our successes. On Halloween, students not only disguised themselves, they also disguised kale. They invented their own kale-fruit smoothies. Selecting from a variety of ingredients including oranges, blueberries, apples, bananas, pineapple and even fresh cranberries and ginger, students made their own concoctions. They had to put at least two kale leaves in the mix. At first a little skeptical, their faces transformed as they tasted their creations. Kale smoothies were a big hit. Next year I don’t expect to hear the question, “What is kale?” We’ll have take on a new vegetable. Maybe Brussels sprouts?