Camara Buchanan, 12, likes using her hands to cover newly planted potatoes, while Daniel Hooks, 12, and other students use shovels and rakes. (Ann Cameron Siegal)

Can the food you throw out today help put fresh healthy food on your plate in the future?

Yes, say students at Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland. There’s been a community garden since 2006, but until this year it was run by volunteers. Now, under the guidance of two full-time farmers who are Sandy Spring graduates, the farm is quickly becoming a place where teachers can extend their lessons in science, nutrition or healthful living by giving all 570 students, from pre-K to high school, some hands-on experience during the year. Using raised planting beds outside their classrooms or several acres of plowed fields, kids help grow dozens of different vegetables and herbs for their school cafeteria.

Let’s explore their outdoor classroom.

Scraps to soil

The process starts with dining hall leftovers. Students scrape uneaten food from their plates into special bins. The scraps are added to a compost pile (basically a heap of natural material that includes foods and leaves). When the material in the compost pile breaks down, it becomes similar to plant vitamins, which can be mixed into garden soil.

Students research the best season for vegetables. For example, broccoli is a cool weather vegetable while tomatoes grow best in the summer.

Oops! One lesson learned....scrape plates carefully in cafeteria or else eating utensils end up in compost pile...smushed! (Ann Cameron Siegal)

Getting their hands dirty and learning to use a variety of garden tools help kids reap the rewards that yummy, healthful food provides. Potatoes go into the school’s popular potato salad. Bok choy (Chinese cabbage) and other veggies show up on the salad bar. One student made beet cake. (Hmmmm, gotta try that one.)

“We grow it; we eat it,” said Zeke Lightfoot, 12, who bought his first garden tools when he was 9 so he could grow tomatoes in his backyard.

Protecting plants

To help their plantings survive, students also build and repair protective fences around the gardens because deer love to munch on tender shoots and leaves.

As part of the schoolwide Earth Stewardship Day in April, Maddie Jaques, 15, was using some strong muscles and a heavy post driver to pound a nine-foot-tall fence post into the ground. But she wasn’t complaining. “You get to bond with the earth — there’s nothing wrong about that!”

Students also built “caterpillar tunnels” — not for those crawly critters, but for extending the growing season in chilly spring or fall weather. The clear plastic tunnels cover plants when there’s a threat of frost. They can be moved over whichever veggies need added shelter. Students even named one tunnel “Wonky” because the frame they made was lopsided.

Eating right from the garden

All of Sandy Spring’s produce is grown organically — without pesticides — so kids often munch on available herbs including dill, basil and parsley as they work. They’ve even learned about edible weeds such as lamb’s-quarters, which resembles spinach.

Lindsay Johnson, 12, thinks that school-grown lettuce tastes better than lettuce bought in a grocery. “Things in the store don’t seem as fresh and natural,” she said.

Davy Adise, 13, knew that worms are good for the soil but is now learning which bugs are good for plants. He wisely cautions, “Not every single plant is going to be a success.”

Ben Yumkas, 16, thought about all the muscles used in gardening. “It’s vigorous, hard work. We should have farming as an athletic option.”

Participating students may really get in shape because the farm’s program’s goal is to eventually become self-sustaining — providing all of the produce needed by the cafeteria, which serves day students, boarding students and a large summer camp program.

— Ann Cameron Siegal