Small Garden Teaches Big Lessons

5/25/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Some kids go crazy for pizza, popcorn and candy.

Students in a “Garden Project” club can’t wait to eat broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

They’re just some of the things they plant, raise and prepare as part of an extracurricular activity that’s become a big part of every day life at Lake Avenue Elementary School in Saratoga Springs.

“It’s good to grow your own food. What it’s really about is learning how to eat properly,” said Carol Maxwell, an active PTA member and parent of a child at the school, who started the program four years ago. “Kids have a whole different attitude about things they’ve grown themselves.”

The project started out small and has more than tripled in size to a roughly 950-square-foot parcel that kids tend themselves.

In past years, they’d start in March with cold-weather crops such as greens.

However, a municipal utility problem forced work crews to disrupt the plot this winter — the school is in a downtown setting — so garden beds weren’t prepared for planting until May.

But it’s only a minor inconvenience, not a deterrent by any means.

Recently, with cooperation from other school officials, a new “food lab” was opened where kids can also learn culinary skills such as food preparation and cooking.

“The whole idea is to make them more skills-based,” Maxwell said. “A lot of people these days don’t know how to cook. They don’t eat enough vegetables. The goal is for kids to freestyle’ at home, so if they go to a store or farmers market they can pick things out and make things on their own.”

Recently, Maxwell applied for a grant from Los Angeles-based Seeds of Change, an organic seed and food company owned by Mars Inc. The firm hosts an annual “Share the Good” Competition that awards grants to support and develop sustainable, community-based gardening and farming programs.

The Garden Project is seeking a $10,000 grant that it hopes to use for a refrigerator, garden tools such as cultivators and hoes, and volunteer training materials. Every week, three to five parent volunteers assist with gardening and cooking.

Grants are awarded based on the results of public balloting done on Facebook. Recipients will be announced on or about June 4.

Win or lose, Maxwell said she plans to seek additional funding sources throughout the summer so the program will be even stronger when school resumes again in fall.

The club has 25 student gardeners who grew about 30 different kinds of fruit and vegetables. The group meets weekly from September to December and from early spring through June, with occasional meetings in summer.

Every week, students learn to cook with what they’ve grown and then share a meal together.

“The school recently hosted a school board meeting, and members toured the food lab and tried some of the kale and tomato soup that kids prepared,” Maxwell said. “They’ve made all kinds of things — sauerkraut, pierogies, borscht. They also made a really good slaw with raw beets, fresh orange and scallions. It opens their minds to try new things, things they aren’t getting at home.”

The program’s popularity has taken on a life of its own by inviting interdisciplinary exercises. For example, Maxwell, a certified biologist, is working with other volunteers that recently organized a school science lab.

A small part of the student garden will be set aside for science-related projects such as soil composition and how plants transfer water and nutrients.

Homegrown food can be a valuable teaching tool about history, too. The school hosts an annual “Colonial Day” in which fourth-graders make their own costumes and dress up as early American settlers.

“We’re going to grow and grind our own corn,” Maxwell said. “That’s what they did in colonial times. Food is also important to the immigration history of America. It would fit in well with lessons about Ellis Island. There’s a lot we can do by collaborating and working together throughout the seasons.”

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