Del City Elementary principal Ruth Kizer estimates that up to 90 percent of her nearly 400 students had no previous experience with growing food before the school kicked off an in-school gardening program this year.
After taking her own grandchildren to a pick-your-own peach farm, this veteran educator started thinking about her students, their exposure to fresh, local produce and how the school might be able to positively impact their health. “Research shows that if they grow it, they will eat it,” Kizer explains while strolling through the maze of raised bed gardens adjacent to the school’s main building. “Nutrition has been a huge part of it. It gives them an awareness of good eating habits, as well as learning teamwork and cooperation.”
The 2011-12 school year is the first time that Del City Elementary has taken this community gardening approach and Kizer reports that it has been an overwhelming success. “Kids don’t get to just play in the dirt anymore. They have had so much fun digging and getting involved has been a wonderful experience,” she explains. “I love watching them dig, plant and work together.“
The school has combined the gardening program with opportunities for classroom learning. Students have learned math skills by calculating the proper planting distance between plants, seed germination periods and more. History classes compare these gardens to the Victory Gardens grown during WWII. Hands-on science lessons come by tracking how environmental factors such as temperature, rainfall and hours of sunlight affect plant growth. “An EPA expert came in and talked to the kids about keeping soil healthy,” Kizer adds. “Plus, we’ve been vermicomposting and learning about the worms has been cool.”
While the lessons are complex, the structure to the school’s community garden is refreshingly simple. Different classes tend to different beds and all grades participate. Each participating class decides what they wish to study and grow, combining their specific classroom lessons with hands-on gardening experience. A walk through the beds showcases themes such as “Mater’s Taters,” a salsa garden and a pizza garden.
In addition to the time and effort that students and teachers have put into developing the garden, Kizer has enjoyed impressive involvement from others associated with the school—most importantly, parents. “There has been so much support from our community, I’ve just been amazed,” Kizer marvels. “It’s been crucial in so many ways.”
To kick off the project, the school asked parents to donate the bricks used to create the raised beds. The $1.50 per brick cost served as an affordable way for families to contribute as much or as little as they could. Kizer reports that bricks were even donated from other schools in the Mid-Del district that were excited to help the school get their garden program going.
Since the beds were constructed, she says parents have volunteered their time, the PTA has offered support and a local home improvement store even donated a much-needed wheelbarrow for moving soil. Parents have also volunteered to keep the garden going over the summer months, to help keep the momentum going into the next school year.
“It’s been so cool to watch the kids’ reactions,” says Christal Collins, a parent that volunteers in the garden alongside her second and third grade children. “Everyone just gets a big smile on their face when we talk about the garden.”
Bringing Community Gardens to Your School
For schools interested in starting their own garden project, Kizer says that parental participation is crucial to success and encourages frequent communication to get families excited early on. “When we first introduced the idea of the community garden, I called a meeting to tell parents about it,” Kizer recollects. “We ended up having to change to a different room because so many parents showed up!”
Next, explore grant opportunities that can help provide funding for materials and other resources. Kizer received grant funding through a 21st Century Community Involvement Grant from the State Department of Education and other small grant programs. Research available grant opportunities and allow time to meet application deadlines.
Lastly, reach out to other organizations in the community who are working towards similar goals. Kizer mentions local 4H youth programs, county offices of the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Office at Oklahoma State University, master gardeners, and the Ag in the Classroom program as potential resources to explore in your local community.
What’s Cooking Next
In celebration of their first year of successful gardening, the entire school will enjoy a special meal of “stone soup” in the cafeteria in early May. In future years, the school hopes to grow enough produce to share with a local senior citizens center. The school will also send seeds home with each student, to encourage families to grow food at home. “Hopefully, they will learn enough to become gardeners themselves,” Kizer says.
Gardening is not the end of the sustainability that Kizer hopes to teach her students. Raising chickens is part of her long term-plan, as well as beehives to help the students harvest their own honey. “My office staff is at the point where when I say ‘I have a great idea!’ they just groan,” Kizer laughs. “But it is all worth it. I had one little girl look up at me in the garden and say ‘I love this school!’ I have always believed that school and learning should be fun. It’s so rewarding to see the kids learning, connecting and most importantly, enjoying this experience.”
Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor at MetroFamily Magazine.
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