Reading, Writing ... and Raised-Bed Gardening!?!?!
As it turns out, there’s sometimes much more to discover at your local farmers market than flowers and freshly-picked vegetables…
I was wandering around the Benson Farmers Market one Saturday morning late this summer when a little blonde gal in a bright yellow Lil’ Miss Sunshine T-shirt caught my attention. She was working at a booth with a bright, rainbow-colored umbrella (sorry, evidently I’m a sucker for “cheery”), and she was spouting off all sorts of gardening and healthy-eating tidbits to folks.
White beans, this….cherry tomatoes, that…
What was she, like 9 years old?!! Ten maaaaybe (more like ten…going on twenty!). I just had to meet her!
She had the most contagious smile, and a personality that instantly reeled me in! Let me tell you, if this bubbly girl doesn’t make you want to eat more veggies, then I don’t know what would!
As it turns out, her name is Gabby Goetzinger, and she’s a 5th grader at Western Hills Magnet Center. We got to chatting (mostly because I was mesmerized by discovering such a charismatic and confident young person), and I learned that she is President (yes, President) of her school’s Garden Club! Throw in that she loves vegetables and was at the market selling produce that she and her classmates had been growing in their school’s garden, and, well, let’s just say… she had me at zucchini!
Gabby’s parents, as well as her school’s Principal, Mrs. Margie Reed-Schmid, and the school’s Health Paraprofessional, Geri Dunn, were also working at the farmer’s market booth that day. Although, at Gabby’s request, these adults had been relegated to secondary tasks so that the “students could be the ones helping the customers and running the booth.” (See what I mean, folks…this girl is something else!).
In an effort to bring you the “full story,” I somehow managed (while Gabby was distracted with another customer) to ask the school Principal some questions and to request a guided tour of the garden, along with a more formal interview, once the school year was in full swing.
And, so, last month I travelled to Western Hills (the full 10 blocks from my home) for a sit-down interview with Gabby and Mrs. Reed-Schmid. Yes, I do the dirty (and dangerous) work so all of you don’t have to (okay, so maybe “dirty and dangerous” is a bit of a stretch….but I figured “interesting and enjoyable” wouldn’t earn me much in the way of kudos from all of you).
At any rate, here’s the down low on the whole “school garden” thing…
The Garden’s Beginning
Western Hills is an Omaha Public Schools University Partnership Magnet Center, located at 6523 Western Avenue. The school’s magnet program allows them to offer a variety of “elective” courses to provide their students with opportunities to get “real world” perspectives on learning. Garden Club is one of the many opportunities offered through this partnership.
We sure didn’t have classes like that when I was in school…and, yes, I most certainly did walk to school uphill in both directions, as well! But I digress.
Two years ago, Mrs. Reed-Schmid attended a Magnet Schools of America conference and noticed that many states in the South have gardens at their schools. Because of her passion for growing fresh foods and her commitment to educating students about healthy eating and providing them with opportunities to do so, Mrs. Reed-Schmid made it a priority to incorporate a garden into Western Hills’ curriculum.
Great idea, huh? I think so, too!
As luck should have it, upon returning from this conference, Mrs. Reed-Schmid learned of a grant that was available through Lowe’s for an outdoor classroom. Western Hills applied for the grant and received $5,000 to create their outdoor classroom.
Obviously, the financial support was critical to starting the garden. However, the volunteers who dedicated their time, skills and effort to the project were also invaluable. Leadership Omaha, a group of professionals who give service to others, adopted the Western Hills garden as one of their community service projects. Michael Berry (of Boulevard Gardens) donated his time and talents to design the space. Benson Farmers Market provided free booth space for the kids to come and sell items anytime they had excess produce available. And, of course, the students and many of their parents played critical roles in the garden’s success, particularly when it came to tending to the garden several hours each week throughout the summer months!
Tour of the Garden
That’s all I could say as I exited the school building and followed Gabby into the courtyard where the garden is located. There were so many wonderful things growing there, more than I’d ever expected. Among them were a pumpkin garden, a butterfly garden, a Peter Rabbit garden (with carrots and lettuce, of course!), a “Grow Big Red” garden (where only red things are grown!), a Rainbow Garden, a Salsa Garden and a Spaghetti Garden.
How fun is that!?!?
And, of course, what garden would be complete without a compost bin, a windmill and a scarecrow!
Garden Benefits Students
As you can see, the garden is absolutely beautiful! Who wouldn’t LOVE to learn in a classroom with a view like that! However, there’s so much more to be gained from this garden than simply its aesthetic appeal. According to Mrs. Reed-Schmid, the kids have learned an amazing amount. With two years of gardening under their belts now, students are often the ones teaching the staff new horticultural tidbits! One student told the staff, “we shouldn’t pull clover because it puts nitrogen back in the soil.”
Obviously these kids are learning some wonderful things!
School officials have also noticed the following benefits to students:
- Digging in the dirt seems to have a calming effect on the kids.
- The kids are seeing more of a connection to living things, especially with the planting of seeds. While selling products at the farmers market, one student commented, “Wow! I planted that from a seed, and now this man is buying it.” How’s that for hands-on learning with real-world application!?
- School pride has increased. The students seem to want to do more for the school and to make it look better and be a better place.
- And, of course, the nutritional benefits to students have been incredible! Many students will pick and eat cherry tomatoes like they are candy - because they grew them!
The garden has really increased the value that the kids will place on particular food items solely because of their nutritional benefits. Students are becoming quite intrigued in the cafeteria, as well. “Did we grow that in the garden?” has become a frequent question in the lunch line. Through their involvement in the garden, students are seeing that there are healthier choices, and they are more likely to try those things in the cafeteria now.
Of course, I needed to know what the Garden Club President would have to say, so I asked Gabby what she felt were the benefits of having this garden at her school. Just so happens, she had a few ideas:
- “I think it’s really, really great that our school has a garden. Lots of schools don’t have one. It gives the students, like me, a certain experience and learning privilege that some other kids don’t have at school.”
- “We earned a lot of money for our school, and we educated a lot of littler kids at the farmers market over the summer.”
- “I really enjoyed watching the garden grow. The farmers market was the MOST fun - - getting ready for the market, taking things there and knowing you’re helping your school was the best! Having this garden is just amazing to me!”
- “We got to make salsa at school with tomatoes and peppers from our garden, and that was really great! My favorite thing to eat from the garden is the tomatoes!”
Jealousy Rears Its Ugly Head
Okay, so maybe it’s not cool for a 30-(something)-year-old to be jealous of a bunch of 8-, 9- and 10-year-old kids, but ….come on! I never knew a thing about gardening (or even about eating healthfully, for that matter) until just a couple of years ago. And these Western Hills Magnet Center kids are learning this stuff right in their school’s backyard – starting in Kindergarten!