Student Gardeners Win Big at Agricultural Fair

nancy burke

Nancy Burke (right) and student Taylor Warren (left) in the Haverhill High School garden.

In late September, paraeducator Nancy Burke and several student gardeners delivered more than a dozen different types of vegetables, herbs, and berries to contest judges at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts. This was the fourth year that students with special needs from Haverhill High School’s gardening program had entered the agricultural competition, which includes fruit and vegetable entries from across New England.

“My goal when I started the garden was to teach students where food comes from and encourage them to make healthy food choices,” says Burke, a member of the Haverhill Education Association (HEA). “But they really look forward to participating in the fair.”

In 2012, Burke turned an indoor school courtyard into a single-bed vegetable garden. The garden bed was raised high enough off the ground so students sitting in wheelchairs could plant seeds, smooth soil, and pluck buried vegetables with ease. Today, the garden contains three raised-beds and an outdoor orchard.

“I started out small, and got carried away,” says Burke. “It was always supposed to be a learning garden.”

At the fair, one by one, Haverhill’s sunflowers, Swiss chard, red hot peppers, and cherry tomatoes were awarded first-place ribbons in the Junior Fruits and Vegetables competition for gardeners ages 14 to 19, in the special needs category.

Emotions ran high for Burke and the 50 members of the garden club as their winning streak extended to nine second-place ribbons for their carrots, white potatoes, berries, and various herbs. Plus, three of the students walked away with the fair’s top three prizes in a farm-themed poster contest.

“We had a very good fair this year,” Burke says.

While recognition at the Topsfield Fair holds deep sentimental value for Burke and her ninth- through twelfth-grade students, they have also received state recognition for being at the forefront of the farm to school movement.

On October 3, as the fair was still packing in crowds, Burke was named a 2018 Kale Blazer award recipient by Massachusetts Farm to School.

“Nancy was selected because she has stood out as a farm to school champion over a number of years,” says Simca Horwitz, co-director of the organization. “She helps ensure that all students, regardless of ability, have access to hands-on, experiential education in the garden.”

Horwitz says the Haverhill garden “did not start high up in the administration. It started with an education support professional (ESP) who worked hard and has earned tremendous respect from students and school administrators.”

The award honors Burke as an activist who promotes gardens as outdoor learning labs and teaching tools.

“I’m grateful for the award, but am particularly happy because it included a whole bunch of kale instead of flowers,” says Burke, who received the award at a statehouse ceremony in Boston surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues from the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). “I used the kale to make sausage soup.”

Growing the Holiday Spirit

To Burke’s delight, garden club students not only inherited her green thumb but also her engaging community spirit. During the holidays, students volunteer at Sacred Heart Church Food Pantry to help unload delivery trucks and organize inventory.

“The students go to the church to unload crates of bananas, cabbage, apples … whatever,” says Jason Burns, a Haverhill special education teacher who works with Burke in the classroom and garden.

After unloading the crates, students then sort and box the food items for pick-up by needy families and others.

“The pantry is particularly busy during the holidays,” says Burns. “After the students found this out, they wanted to help.”

Just before Thanksgiving Day, students invited their parents and guardians to the school for a meal of ham, mashed potatoes, broccoli, cranberry sauce, and rolls.

“Students developed the menu, shopped for the items at the market, prepared some of the food, and cleaned up after everyone,” says Burns, who works with students through the Multi Support, AIM and REACH programs. “The kids are involved in the whole process of preparing meals from start to finish.”

Over the years, members of the football and wrestling teams, Junior ROTC squad, and Boy Scouts have helped to cultivate the garden.

“The whole high school supports the garden,” says Burke. “At lunchtime, students and staff like to sit around the garden and talk. Some teachers have class out there.”

A Garden at Every School?

“Educators do not need special training to develop school garden programs,” says Horwitz. “There are a huge number of free resources available to help people get started – from basic tips on gardening with kids, to in-depth guides on integrating gardens with the curriculum to meet established learning standards.”

Horwitz points to the National Farm to School Network for local farm to school contacts as well as a resource database.

Simca Horwitz says school gardens are excellent settings to instruct students on a variety of topics.

“School gardens provide an incredible setting for teaching students,” she says. “It is not a new subject area, rather it’s a place where learning about math, science, history, language, and art can come alive for students.”

At Haverhill, Burke was able to secure several grants in recent years from MTA and NEA to purchase lumber, tools, and other supplies. But what about schools that do not have the space or capacity for a garden?

“In these situations, even exposing students to growing food like lettuce in the classroom or cooking with students can have many of the same benefits,” Horwitz says. “Farm to school activities such as these have been shown to positively impact student eating habits – encouraging them to consume more healthy foods.”

Garden-inspired learning can impact student achievement as well as social and emotional learning, she adds.

“Some students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting may excel in a school garden environment,” says Horwitz, who acknowledges that most educators may not have sufficient time during the school day to develop and maintain a garden.

“For this reason, it’s really important to think of the school garden as a tool and a setting for teaching the material that educators are already planning to teach,” Horwitz says.

If all goes as planned, Haverhill will soon have a patio with picnic tables and a pergola for use by teachers, ESP, and students.

“We try to make it a four-season garden,” says Burke. “Even though the growing season has ended, we go out to the garden and orchard and have hot chocolate.”

Want to Start a School Garden?

For ideas, visit Eco Literacy, Lifelab, USDA Farm to School Program, National Farm to School Network, Edible Schoolyard.