When children grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables, they are much more likely to eat healthy food, so for decades California politicians, teachers and nutrition educators have advocated for a garden in every school. However, UC Cooperative Extension experts in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties found that garden care can dwindle over time.
“Students and their parents ‘age out' of their elementary schools,” said Shannon Klisch, UC CalFresh community education supervisor in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. “The turnover in expertise and level of commitment can vary widely, leaving some schools with either weedy, abandoned vegetable patches, or no garden support at all.”
Volunteers gather in the garden before the first outdoor lesson. The course is taught by Lisa Paniaqua, standing on the left, school garden sustainability coordinator for UC CalFresh in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
UCCE offers UC CalFresh, federally funded nutrition education for CalFresh recipients (formerly called Food Stamps). UC CalFresh nutrition educators in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties saw a need to mobilize highly trained community members who could develop, support, sustain and teach from school gardens. UC CalFresh joined with UC's 4-H Youth Development, Master Food Preserver, and Master Gardener programs to launch a pilot project called “UC Garden Nutrition Extenders.”
“We don't have enough staff to work the gardens in every school, so we've started recruiting and training volunteers,” said Lisa Paniagua, school garden sustainability coordinator for the UC Garden Nutrition Extender program in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
The Sunshine Garden is a section of the UC Master Gardener demonstration garden adjacent to the UC Cooperative Extension parking lot in San Luis Obispo. It is a model garden that can be replicated at local schools and is used for training the Garden Nutrition Extender volunteers.
“By enlisting passionate volunteers, nutrition educators could significantly multiply the number of students who had access to school gardens, nutrition education, and training in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the garden,” said Katherine Soule, Ph.D., youth, families, and communities advisor in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
Klisch said UC Garden Nutrition Extenders are local members of their school communities.
“They are often parents, neighbors or staff and they have a personal investment in seeing the youth and the school environment flourish, which makes for a much more sustainable intervention and increases community capacity to sustain a garden program," she said.
Paniagua, Klisch, and Soule created a hybrid training program integrating volunteers and educators from UC CalFresh, UC Master Food Preservers, UC Master Gardeners and 4-H. They selected a 4-H gardening and nutrition curriculum written by researchers at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, which includes engaging, student-centered, experiential learning while dividing time between the garden and the classroom. The curriculum reinforces goals in Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, policies that guide public school teaching.
“Teachers will want to know we are familiar with curriculum standards. Applying them adds value to these classes,” Paniagua said.
Trainees set out to collect garden items in a scavenger hunt.
In July, the third cohort of future UC Garden Nutrition Extender volunteers gathered at UC Cooperative Extension in San Luis Obispo to learn how they can help schools transform their gardens into fruitful learning activity centers for the students.
One member of the new cohort is Jill Marie, a certified Master Gardener in San Luis Obispo County.
“I live by a school and they have garden beds that are not kept up. I want to get involved and get to know the kids,” she said.
The volunteer teachers learn by conducting the indoor and outdoor curriculum activities and food demonstrations over a four-week period. Their first foray into the UCCE Sunshine School Demonstration Garden began with a mindfulness practice.
“Close your eyes, and just listen,” Paniagua instructed. A moment later she asked, “What did you hear?”
Christina Lawson, director of nutrition at Coast Unified School District, finds 'something round' in the garden.
To encourage students to take a closer look at the garden, the class was sent out with egg cartons labeled for a 12-item scavenger hunt, and later asked to select one item to discuss. Reporting on topics are part of Common Core standards for students in third- through fifth-grades and creates discussion learning topics around science, math, engineering, art, and even poetry.
The practice involved finding something yellow, red, green, brown, round and rectangle shaped. They collected leaves, twigs, flowers, seeds, weeds and edible items.
Back in the classroom, the trainees began work in pairs on the next lesson, “Know & Show Sombrero.” With paper, tape and a bag of craft supplies – balloons, ribbons, foam stickers and construction paper – the extenders made hats that represent everything a plant needs. One group used a yellow balloon to symbolize the sun, another had water drops raining down from the brim. A third group sprinkled glitter to represent the nutrients in the soil.
“Why are we putting these on a hat?” Paniaqua asked the class. “The exercise is useful for kinesthetic learners. It reinforces what they learn. At the end, we talk about it and develop conversation skills.”
Farmer Carla Rosin, left, and nursery professional Wendy Minarik form a paper hat.
The half-day session ended with a tasting of purple, yellow and orange carrots.
“In your journals, write words to describe the smell, sight, taste and feel of the three colors of carrots,” Paniagua said.
One of the volunteers Christina Lawson, director of nutrition for Coast Unified School District, laughed.
“We tried to serve purple carrots. Pfft. Zip,” she said. “I'm excited about this. If the kids try them before coming to the cafeteria, it would make my life so much easier.”
This project is funded through local grant awards from the National 4-H Council in collaboration with Lockheed Martin, and UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program, which is a joint agreement among the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Food and Nutrition Service (USDA/FNS), the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) CalFresh branch, and the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE).
Extender trainee Stacy Henderson explains the symbols on her paper hat.
Working in groups of two. In the front are CalPoly master's nutrition student Alyssa Friebert, left, and UC Master Gardener Jill Marie.
'It is so amazing to see their eyes light up and hear the excitement in their voices when they see the work of their hands.' - Ventura County teacher
This is a real testimonial about the value of a school garden. I received an email recently from a teacher at a school where our University of California Cooperative Extension team installed garden beds this last school year. I have made minimal edits to the email to protect the privacy of the students. The program is the Middle School Opportunity Program at Foothill Technology High School
in Ventura Unified School District. (This is an innovative and targeted program at one of the nation's highest achieving public high schools. Foothill was just ranked by Newsweek magazine in its top 100 public high schools, as #77 among all high schools, and #54 nationwide at effectiveness in serving low-income students).
At the end of a challenging day, I found this in my inbox:
“Our garden continues to thrive! My students love it. They run over to it first thing each morning to check the progress of their plants. Right now we have the last of our tomatoes, the last of the strawberries, bell peppers, snacking peppers, cucumber vines that are flowering, pumpkin vines (we planted those late), radishes, cilantro, chives, corn, and broccoli (something is eating the leaves. Ideas?). I am teaching plant science and it has been so wonderful to use our garden plants for examples. It makes the lessons so much richer.
The kids have asked me if we can install two more planter boxes. I told them I would check with you to see if you have more. If not, we will make them ourselves.
Again, thanks so much for getting us started last year. The addition of our garden has made our program more enjoyable for the students and for me. It is so amazing to see their eyes light up and hear the excitement in their voices when they see the work of their hands actually thriving!”
Over one hundred years ago, Ventura Unified teacher Zilda Rogers also gardened with her students, and also wrote to a University of California staff member about the positive experiences her students were having in their school garden. This important story about the history of school gardens appears in a book I recently published, called “Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I.”
History often repeats itself. And sometimes, in good ways. P.S. to one of my favorite teachers, at one of my favorite schools, in one of my favorite school districts: We'll be over ASAP to fulfill your request for two more garden boxes to expand this “growing” enterprise!
“A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”
When FoodCorps begins operating in California this year, one of its "service members" will be hosted by UC Cooperative Extension in San Andreas, said an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
FoodCorps is a national organization that connects kids with healthy food. It selected two non-profit organizations - Life Lab and Community Alliance with Family Farmers - to administer the California program. Those two organizations selected 10 hosts, including UCCE.
According to its website, FoodCrops "strives to give all youth an enduring relationship with healthy food. We do that by placing motivated leaders in limited-resource communities for a year of public service."
The paid service members:
- Teach kids about what healthy food is and where it comes from
- Build and tend school gardens
- Bring high-quality local food into public school cafeterias
A three-year UC Berkeley study shows that students who get a steady curriculum of gardening, cooking and nutrition have significantly better eating habits than children who don't get the same instruction, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The report, by UC Berkeley's Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health, looks at how an integrated approach to food education at the elementary-school level contributes to children's desire to eat fruits and vegetables.
An inner-city Los Angeles school has a small vegetable garden that is overseen by a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, according to a story published yesterday in the Daily Breeze.
"This may be the only place they can have access to nature," the story quoted Master Gardener Kris Lauritson. "It's an outdoor classroom."
The school serves primarily Latino students; about 80 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches.
The program teaches students about healthy diets and gives them a chance to taste fresh foods they may not normally have at home. Students eat what they grow - turnips and broccoli, lettuce and spinach, soybeans, potatoes and cabbage.
Alice Acevedo, a school office worker observing the students as they worked in the garden, told reporter Douglas Morino the kids won't touch fresh fruits and vegetables put out in the cafeteria at lunch.
"But once they grow it themselves, they can't get enough. They're taking pride in what they're doing," Acevedo was quoted.
Los Angeles County's 181 Master Gardeners volunteered 9,272 hours in 2008, serving 87,376 low-income gardeners at 28 community gardens, 46 school gardens, 15 shelter gardens, 5 senior gardens and 13 fairs and farmers markets. For more information on the program and its services, see the LA Common Ground Web site.
It's worth clicking through to the Daily Breeze to see the photographs that accompany the school garden story. The off-axis, vivid and creative images are uncommon in photojournalism. I asked ANR Communications Services media services manager Mike Poe about the trendy garden art.
He said a lot of hip, cool, current video is shot that way.
"The photos are emulating that style to appeal to a young audience or indicate the subject is young," Poe said. "It's a technique I'd use very judiciously."
The school garden story and photos also appeared in the Pasadena Star-News.