School Gardens Inspire Home Gardens and Healthy Meals

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Boy in orange with lettuce

Summer is a great season for getting kids outdoors in the garden.

Even in late-July and August, you can start sowing seeds for cool-season crops like lettuces, kales and peas in the garden for fall harvests. Just make certain you count back from your last average frost day, so you have enough time for your vegetables to ripen before it gets too cold.

The vegetable gardens you grow with your kids can help them make smarter food decisions now and when they get back to school, according to Kay Clark, Nutrition Educator for the Healthy School Project operated by the Ventura Unified School District in California. In the photo below, she is helping elementary school children harvest lettuce to bring their families for Mother Day.

 

School Garden

 

“Many children don’t understand their food sources,” explains Kay. “We’ll sometimes ask young students whether they eat food from plants, and they’ll scream back, ‘No, yuck!’ This lack of knowledge about agriculture and food nutrition is exactly what we’re trying to change with our school programs.”

 

Girl and boy

 

Sandy Curwood, RDN, MS, agrees. She is the director of Food and Nutrition Services for the Ventura Unified School District and organizes its comprehensive Healthy School Program.

“We’ve established a farm-to-school salad bar in each of Ventura’s 25 schools, from kindergarten to high school,” says Sandy. “Serving farm-fresh, local and seasonal produce to our students and staff has become a way of engaging young people in healthy delicious eating habits. We supplement this effort with school gardens, classroom taste testing and cooking lessons.”

 

School garden up close

 

Every school has a garden in Ventura, according to Sandy. “Some schools link their garden to grade-level curriculum in math, science, health, history and other subjects,” she says. “Other schools grow crops for taste testing and some classes even grow food for their cafeterias to use. Each of these connections demonstrates the link between learning and living.”

Along with building and maintaining school gardens, the Ventura Unified School District engages students to embrace fresh local foods with teaching tools including:

  • Classroom nutritional programs with lessons, taste testing and cooking lessons.
  • Harvest of the Month activities with crops that are fresh, local and seasonal.
  • Menu calendars that provide information on the crops, where they grow, historical and cultural information, and a recipe. “This recipe can be made at home, and is featured in the school cafeteria for children to try,” adds Sandy.

 

Boy eats lettuce

 

How can you apply this excellent example to your own children this summer?

  • Plant easy-to-grow foodsfrom seeds sown directly in the garden, such as lettuces, radishes, carrots and peas. “If kids grow the food themselves, they’ll eat it,” reports Kay.
  • Start small at first.“Even a pot of herbs is a great way to introduce children to gardening,” she adds. “You don’t need to overdo it. Just take one step at a time.”
  • Encourage participation.Consider allocating a small spot in your garden, just for your kids to plant vegetables, or edible flowers like calendula and nasturtiums. Show them how to sow seeds the correct depth, and how to weed and water effectively.  Explain why chemical pesticides kill important pollinators and beneficial insects. Make it a game to check their plants are growing properly. “Kids develop a real sense of pride from growing their own food,” says Kay.
  • Show kidsthe different parts of the plant they are eating. Is it a root, like a carrot? Or, leaves like lettuce? Sometimes we eat stems like celery, and flowers like broccoli’s unopened buds. This fun exercise can become a daily habit during family meals, and help children understand botany and proper nutrition.
  • Be inspiredby Ventura Unified School District’s example. If your school district doesn’t have an active healthy school program, find out how you can get one started in your area. Here’s how to  start and maintain a school garden and how to start a farm to school program from FarmtoSchool.org.