School Garden Fights Obesity With Healthy Food Choices

As winter fades, students at Dr. Elmer S. Bagnall Elementary School in Groveland, Massachusetts, can be seen scurrying about the freshly dug school garden planting Swiss chard, spinach, peas, and pumpkin seeds. The first three items will be harvested by mid-June to make way for a second crop.

The pumpkin patch will be watered and pampered until fall when each pumpkin will then be boiled, baked, and blended in the school kitchen and offered to students at lunchtime or during one of the school’s monthly events called Tasting Tuesday.

Kindergarten paraeducator Kelly Procurot and students tend to the Bagnall school garden. Photo: Bob Duffy

After all the digging, planting, and watering students will have done over the summer, most will rush to the front of the lunch line for a serving of made-from-scratch pumpkin pie, soup or other savory dish.

“The students take great pride and ownership of what comes out of that garden,” says Lisa Stevens, a paraeducator at Bagnall who works with several classes  on the garden. “Once something is served in the cafeteria from the garden, they will pick it over french fries.”

Not all pumpkins will be sliced and simmered. Some will be used as lesson props to be measured (math), dissected (science) and pondered (journaling). Others will be donated to a local food bank.  Whatever the outcome of garden produce, the goal for educators and parents is simple: cultivate food-smart youths.

“The garden enables students to have an outdoor classroom where they can learn in a hands-on manner,” says Melissa Montello, a parent volunteer who serves as the garden coordinator. “You know they are learning because you can see the look of joy on their faces when they harvest a carrot or potato.”

Bagnall obtained a $5,000 National Education Association (NEA) grant through the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) to support expansion of the garden as part of the state’s Farm to School project. Based in Amherst, the farm project began in 2004 to encourage students to study the origins of food while helping persuade them to make healthy choices during meal times.

In the U.S., obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades according to recent studies. While current government standards regulate the nutritional content of school meals that are subsidized by the federal government, most lunchrooms also have a la carte lines that sell high-fat, high-calorie foods. Foods sold through vending machines are not federally regulated.

Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama has championed the development of school meals that are healthy, tasty, and affordable versus those that are cooked off site, frozen, and then reheated. Through her “Let’s Move” campaign, Mrs. Obama is also stressing the importance of exercise as well as student education about diet.

“When you ask children something like, “Where do carrots come from,” they will say, ‘The grocery store,’” says Donna Johnson, an education support professional (ESP) and president of the University Staff Association at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “When children get their hands in the dirt, plant something and see it grow, they want to try it when it appears at the table. That’s half the battle: getting them to taste it.”

Johnson has been instrumental in expanding Farm to School projects and school gardens across the state. With funding and training support from MTA and NEA, Johnson says ESPs more than any other group have helped to develop healthy cafeteria menus, obtain technical advice on plant selection, and provide curriculum guides on how to use gardens as a teaching tool. At the national level, NEA has identified Massachusetts as a model state for expanding the Farm to School project across the nation.

Creating more school gardens is not the project’s only goal. Wide-reaching objectives include: developing more Farm to School training opportunities for ESPs; promoting annual Kitchen Table Talks (roundtable discussions than bring together school superintendents, principals, educators, farmers, government agriculture officials, and health industry representatives); and getting ESPs to work closer with parents, local business leaders and farmers.

“We want ESPs to be able to talk with farmers about everything from plant selection for school gardens to the timing and shelf-life of crops,” Johnson says.  “Gardens tie everyone together. You have ESPs and teachers working next to parents, and you have students visiting farms on field trips.”

Johnson singles out paraeducators in Amherst who started a Fruit of the Month event at district schools where they incorporate fruit items in lectures, recipes, coloring books, and vocabulary lessons.

“Students benefit the most from the garden’s inquiry-based learning opportunities,” says Montello, a mother of three, including two daughters at Bagnall. For example, in math class students are asked to estimate how many plants can fit into the garden beds. In life sciences, they learn about soil, insects, rain, and other variables that can contribute to a successful crop season. The garden’s sprinkler system becomes a teaching tool that stresses the importance clean water can have on the environment.

As summer approaches, an “Adopt-the-Garden” request letter will be sent home with students requesting help during summer. Last summer, 26 families volunteered.

This June, students are set to plant a pizza garden (tomatoes, basil, peppers, oregano) and a colonial apothecary garden (rosemary, lemon verbena, thyme, sage, parsley, lavender). Beans, winter squash, cucumbers, corn, and zucchini are also planned. Strawberries and raspberries, sunflowers and zinnias will round out this year’s garden.

“Many families report that their children asked them to participate over the summer because they (students) really enjoyed their time in the garden during the school year,” says Montello. “That’s very gratifying.”