Schools across the country are enlisting dietitians to plant gardens, teach cooking classes and train teachers with nutrition education. According to the Farm to School Census, more than 7,000 school gardens have cropped up across the United States. In addition to reading and writing, kids who attend these schools are being taught how to grow and prepare kale, asparagus and zucchini. In an era when Americans take in 57 percent of calories from ultra-processed foods such as chips, candy and baked goods, it’s vital for children to learn about, and appreciate, fresh food options.
Jen Brewer, a registered dietitian with the garden program at Folwell Elementary in Rochester, Minn., has seen firsthand that being involved in planting and tending a garden can make children more likely to try (and like!) vegetables. “There is great satisfaction that comes to students when they get to eat what was simply a seed a few weeks ago,” says Brewer.
Brewer says dishes such as basil pesto and green smoothies get rave reviews, even from the non-vegetable lovers. “I’ve had many converts to spinach by way of smoothies,” says Brewer. “When I pour it, there are usually many moans and groans, followed by, ‘Okay, I’ll just take one sip.’ Then I hear, ‘Wow! This is good! Can I get the recipe?’ ”
School gardens also offer hands-on learning for the kids, who get right into the dirt and observe everything from seeding to harvesting, which helps them understand how food grows.
“Kids learn the power of patience and natural consequences,” says Brewer. “They can’t Google a bean to sprout. They learn that you don’t plant a seed one day and eat the produce the next, and that there are steps that can’t be rushed. This is one of the most powerful lessons that can be taught to a generation who has instant access to most everything imaginable.”
Gardens can offer many other lessons, as well. Dietitian Stefanie Dove, the coordinator of marketing and community outreach for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, trains teachers to integrate school gardens into the classroom curriculum.
“I work with teachers to connect the school garden with subjects from culinary arts, math and plant science to foreign languages,” says Dove. Kids learn about healthy eating, cooking and environmental sustainability while incorporating math, reading and science.
“Some of our physical-education teachers incorporate gardening into their gym classes to demonstrate to students that exercise can come in all forms,” says Dove.
If such ideas appeal to you, but there’s no garden at your school, these dietitians say it’s easy to get one started. Here are their tips:
Build a team. “The number one reason school gardens fail is that a single parent or teacher tries to conquer it alone,” says Dove. It’s a fair amount of work, so you need a team approach. Have one “champion teacher” to take the lead, and build a network around them, including students.
Make connections. Reach out to the school nutrition or health department in your district to see if support is available. Utilize the resources from Farm to School, a networking hub for school gardens. Brewer says that many states also have a school garden convention that meets in the winter, which is a great place to network and learn what works best in your region’s climate.
Try to source funding. Dove says that through community partnerships, her program has distributed more than 150 hydroponic garden towers to classrooms and provided more than $15,000 in funding. Ask local farms, grocery stores, banks and other community businesses to help out, or see if grants are available in your school district.
Start small. Rather than a large outdoor garden, begin with a small indoor garden tower or herb garden.
Don’t be deterred by cold weather. In Minnesota, Brewer relies on indoor hydroponic gardens for the winter growing season.
Have a summer plan. Most outdoor garden growth happens during the off-school months, so have families sign up for time slots to be in charge of weeding and watering the garden. The bonus? They can pick vegetables to take home to enjoy.
If you want your kid to eat carrots, it helps if they plant the seeds, watch them grow and learn how to chop them for stir fries and salads. School gardens facilitate that, and your kids will learn some science, health and math lessons along the way.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”
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