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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sonoma County - School Garden Network

Teaching children to grow their own food gives them an appreciation of where their food comes from and inspires a healthy relationship with food that benefits their health.

School Garden Network Supports Local Programs
By Nicole Zimmerman

At Career Academy of Piner Olivet High School in Santa Rosa, students grow food in the garden, cook in the classroom, and sell produce at their own farm stand. Adam Napoleon, who teaches Organic Gardening, says cooking has become one of the most popular activities. “Once the kids try something they’ve grown themselves but have never eaten before, like Swiss Chard,” Adam says, “they never let me forget it in the next stir fry! And they often come back for seconds.”

Ashourina Woods, garden coordinator at Geyserville Elementary, understands the pressures today’s classroom teachers face. To help them address state educational standards, she integrates math, science, reading and writing into her part-time K-5 garden curriculum. “I never had a child who didn’t want to go to the garden,” she admits proudly.

During the Great Backyard Bird Count at Dunbar Elementary in Glen Ellen, children identify Sharp-shinned Hawks, Lesser Goldfinches, and Acorn Woodpeckers. Another garden activity favorite is peeling the flavorful fava bean, which school kids eat by the handful. “The beans are perfect for discussing the anatomy of a seed,” says veteran garden coordinator Tracy Salcedo-Chourre.

Aside from connecting children with nature through project-based learning, what do these school garden programs have in common? Much of their success is based on support from the School Garden Network of Sonoma County, mainly in the form of grant funding and mentorship.

About the School Garden Network
The School Garden Network (SGN) is a non-profit organization including garden program coordinators, teachers, parent volunteers and community partners. SGN supports and promotes sustainable garden- and nutrition-based learning programs in Sonoma County schools, connects school communities with fresh, locally grown foods, and provides a forum for exchanging information and resources. They empower youth to embrace healthy eating habits and to develop respect for and stewardship of all living things. A chapter of the California School Garden Network, SGN has steadily grown its membership base since 2003.

Why is school garden education important?

School gardens address national concerns about food security, resource consumption, environmental degradation and health epidemics like childhood obesity and Type II Diabetes. Cooking from the garden encourages healthier eating, as kids are more willing to taste and eat foods they’ve planted, harvested and prepared. Farm to school connections support local farmers, sustain healthy food systems and increase biodiversity while exposing kids to food that is nutritious, fresh, seasonal and local. Children learn important life skills and social values by connecting to the natural world through environmental stewardship.

Garden education also promotes academic achievement by incorporating state standards through experiential and place-based learning. Recognizing these beneficial outcomes, the State of California Department of Education mandated the creation of a garden on every elementary school campus. Unfortunately, the “Garden in Every School” initiative has largely been unfunded, leaving most schools struggling to make it a reality.

What does SGN do?
The School Garden Network raises community awareness of the need for, and success of, school garden programs, and seeks continued funding for these programs. They offer workshops, distribute free seeds and plants donated by nurseries, and coordinate fundraising plant sales.

Communicating through the website and listserve of SGN, members share best practices, resources, grant information and curricular ideas like the garden “theme boxes” donated to the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE). Immediate goals of SGN are to continue to help fund and mentor more garden projects through the following grants. (All new grant announcements will be posted on the website in early 2009.)

School Garden Education Coordinator Grant
SGN believes the best way to ensure the long-term viability of school gardens is to provide financial support for the education coordinators who maintain gardens, develop and teach curriculum, organize parent volunteers and liaise with school staff. This award offers partial funding for salaries, and includes tuition for the teacher training at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. An SGN mentor is assigned to each grantee for additional guidance and support. Grant recipients have included: McNear Elementary and La Tercera Elementary in Petaluma, Dunbar Elementary in Glen Ellen, Cloverdale High School and Geyserville Elementary.

Salad Bar Grant
The Salad Bar Grant offers funding and mentoring to increase access to healthy and fresh produce through school cafeteria salad bars, supported by contributions from the school’s garden and a local farm-to-school connection. Grant recipient: Oak Grove Elementary in Graton.

Cooking from the Garden Grant
This award supports nutrition education by funding cooking equipment, supplies and educational materials. Grant recipients: Career Academy at Piner Olivet High School (CAPO) and Valley of the Moon Children’s Community School in Santa Rosa.

Community Partners
SGN recognizes the necessity for collaboration between educational, health, agricultural and business sectors of the community. SGN appreciates the support of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, Dempsey’s Restaurant & Brewery, Whole Foods, Sonoma Jail Industries Nursery, Sweetwater Nursery, Home Depot, School Garden Company, Exchange Bank and more!

How to get Involved:
• Become a member or sponsor a grant.
• Join a committee: Help is needed with educational workshops, fund raising, community outreach, website development, grant management and more.
• Volunteer at your local school garden!
• Table at events or farmers markets to inform the community.
• Donate garden materials, time or funds.
• Share information and resources on the yahoo group listserve: “schoolgardennetwork”

For more information:
707-874-1557 x223

(Nicole Zimmerman serves on the Board of the School Garden Network.)

West County School Garden & Nutrition Programs Teach Children Vital Life Skills

By Nicole Zimmerman

At Harmony Elementary (also home to Salmon Creek Middle School) in Occidental, nine Kindergartners march in single file to an empty garden patch. Laurel Anderson, the outdoor education coordinator, demonstrates how to dig in and “chop up” the dirt. “We want to loosen up the soil,” she explains to the children.

With spading forks almost as tall as they are, the children work eagerly. “We’ll keep our tools low with the pointy side down,” Laurel gently reminds them when they’re easily distracted by a hummingbird or a worm. “Not over your shoulder!” one six year-old adds.

Just before winter, the garden is an array of rich hues. Green gourds hang from an archway past the garden gate. Magenta stalks of flowering amaranth droop above calendula and calliopsis as golden as the autumn sun.

Tangled branches form a nest of shade above sculpted cob benches where students sometimes gather for their lessons. Once a week, with the help of classroom teachers, assistants and volunteers, Laurel teaches Kindergarten through 5th grade students in this outdoor classroom. The kids learn important skills, study science lessons and create habitats for butterflies and other wildlife to flourish.

The kindergartners sprinkle handfuls of seeds from a pail. Bell beans, cowpeas and vetch will form a cover crop of nutrients over the winter months, when the garden classes cease until spring.

While this group plants seeds, another is saving them. At long tables they shake feathery amaranth over sifters, catching their tiny, almost-black seeds in bowls. A third group cracks walnuts with mortar and pestle. “Walnuts are really good for our bodies,” their teacher tells them. Outside the straw bale kitchen the kids later sit with cupped hands, filling their “bowls” with the walnuts and popcorn a fourth group has popped.

To teach young children about nutrition in a fun way, Laurel shows them how to “eat from the rainbow” by using color to associate certain foods with healthy body parts. Green foods are good for the heart, orange helps the eyes and purple foods aide the brain.

While these young students get a comprehensive introduction to all that gardens provide, Salmon Creek’s older students consider greater questions like what food is in season, and why it’s important to support family farmers. In addition to their garden harvests, the school offers a weekly “local lunch” supplemented by food from local farmers.

Like agrarian societies throughout the world, celebrating the harvest through the enjoyment of eating together is an important community experience, one often lost on today’s youth in an era of “convenient” packaged foods. Topping the list of Laurel’s educational goals is to get kids excited about growing their own fruits and vegetables, experiencing the full cycle of life from planting to harvest to compost. She also wants them to experience how delicious it is to eat the foods they’ve grown. “When they ask their parents for rainbow chard or sautéed kale,” Laurel says, she tastes success.

At Guerneville School, a group of 6th-8th graders pulls the last of the lettuce from a garden bed of dark, crumbly soil. They send weeds to the compost pile, fill a wheelbarrow with woodchips for mulching, and plant seeds of winter greens into six-packs.
“The garden needs somebody to take care of it,” explains Kahsa Sabanathan, a 6th grade boy who chose gardening as his elective over art, field sports or band. Ruth Roberson, the school’s garden education coordinator, says there is always a waiting list for her garden elective for middle school students. All other grades receive one hour of gardening and nutrition education every week.

“I grew up shelling beans on the porch with my grandmother,” Ruth reminisces. “These kids are learning what it’s like to open up a fresh bean pod, take the seed out and cook with it. It is vital we rediscover growing our own food.” This year they planted Cascade shell beans: lovely lavender beans inside magenta-streaked pods. “We threw them into the soup and it was fantastic!”

Eighth grader Jazzmine Britt-Russell has been working in the garden for years. “I love the garden and I love nature!” she declares. Because she’s a vegetarian, she especially loves cooking from “a wealth of veggies” she doesn’t necessarily get at home.

The students will try almost everything in the garden’s outdoor kitchen, from cooking to canning to making chutney. Next to the shed, the propane stove rests atop a stand Ruth found at a yard sale. The stainless steel countertop and wood base she rescued from a salvage yard. Even the plates are second hand, reflecting the resourcefulness of garden teachers with limited funding.

This year the school introduced the GEO project: Guerneville Education Outdoors. With almost six acres of undeveloped land, including a seasonal stream in a beautiful Redwood grove, the project would extend beyond the garden fence -- ridding the area of invasive weeds and replacing them with native plants. Ruth pictures native grasses and colorful flowers like California Fuchsia that attract beneficial insects and dragonflies to eat mosquito larvae.

Now enormous, moss-covered redwood stumps, hidden among the blackberry brambles and poison oak, are vestiges of the land’s history. Along the periphery antique apple, pear and prune trees remain from the century-old experimental orchard with historic ties to Luther Burbank. Last year the students made applesauce and dried fruit for the winter.

For now, planting the winter garden is the priority. “Sometimes it’s tricky to figure out how deep to plant the seeds,” admits Katie May, a 7th grader, as she examines a handful of Mustard Red Giant seeds. She and her friends read the seed packets for Chinese cabbage and rhubarb chard to learn how long the seeds take to germinate.

Ruth buys seed for Asian greens from Kitazawa Seed Co. in the Bay Area. They specialize in heirloom Japanese vegetables and Asian greens -- easy to grow, full of vitamins and frost hardy. “The students get excited about different varieties they’ve never seen in the grocery store,” she says. After harvesting, they’ll cook the greens in a wok.

“Parents ask, ‘How do you do it? I couldn’t get my child to eat broccoli at home and now he asks me to buy it.’” The students all agree that they are more inclined to taste or eat what they’ve planted.

Like most garden educators she feels concerned about what is happening to the earth, and sees her role as helping children to connect with nature. Her passion is rewarded each time a child discovers how one seed makes a plant that creates hundreds of new seeds.

“To watch the kids try to fathom that,”
Ruth says, “inspires me to keep teaching them.”

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