Staff photos by Allison Potter
Pat Shaw, from left, Sarah Thornton and Chelsie Buffington prepare a raised bed at Rachel Freeman Elementary School on Thursday, April 11.
When Rochelle McKinley picked up her third-grade son Tavon from school last Thursday, April 11, she admitted that she wasn’t thrilled that he wanted to go back to get dirty in a garden.
“But I just saw the look in his face and he really wanted to go. So, I made a U-turn to come back and ever since then his eyes have sparkled and he’s so focused on what he’s doing,” McKinley said.
In addition to teachers, staff, parents and community volunteers, 30 or more students like Tavon at Rachel Freeman Elementary School literally helped break ground on a newly designed school garden.
Tavon said that he had a lot fun planting the vegetables and fruits that he likes to eat, which is something he never had done before. His gardening tasks included raking dirt and layering sand upon newspapers.
“I’ve learned how to set [the plants], smooth it out and do the steps before you even start,” he said. “I had to learn about vegetables and stuff before I even started to doing this.”
Tavon and his class members are a part of Feast Down East’s “Farm-to-School” programs, partnered with FoodCorps, a national nonprofit targeting classes in healthy childhood nutrition through hands-on food education and improving access to fresh produce in school cafeterias.
Casey Hancock has been a FoodCorps service member at four area elementary schools, including Freeman, since August 2012. She said that the purpose of the garden build was to expand the garden and revitalize some of the raised beds that have been there for a number of years.
“It’s kind of gone through the turmoil of teachers coming and going, or being interested in the garden, but no one really continually taking care of it,” she said.
Hancock said that her main goal in the classroom is to instruct within third grade standards about topics such as soil composition, parts of the plant and the plant lifecycle, as well as nutrition standards.
“Everything connects really beautifully when you have a school garden, because you can teach classes out here in all sorts of subjects, like math, because they’re learning about area and perimeter and they can measure the garden beds,” she said.
Each third grade class will have its own raised bed in Freeman’s garden, which will also feature an herb spiral with seasonal herbs and keyhole gardens with collards, cabbages, tomatoes and more.
“It’s all so interconnected … if one of the main allies isn’t there then the pieces don’t connect as well,” Hancock said.
“We need child nutrition staff on board, school administration, teachers, parents and students, and I’m also really proud of the community volunteer base that we’ve built this year,” she said.
Jane Steigerwald, director of Feast Down East, said during last week’s event the purpose was to build strong Farm-to-School programs with each of the area elementary schools.
“A big part of building a local food system is to involve the students and young people [and] becoming interested in agriculture and buying local, fresh foods,” Steigerwald said.
The three-tiered program is incorporated into the North Carolina third grade curriculum, using the school garden to enhance the learning experience, as well as working with child nutrition staff to bring more fresh, local produce into the school lunches.
“We can’t serve [the garden vegetables] in the cafeteria, because they have strict requirements on food safety, however, we can use it in the classroom as a teaching tool,” Steigerwald said.
Farmers must be certified in Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) in order to provide food for the schools, and Steigerwald said that the program has two farmers who meet those requirements.
While the cafeteria coordinates its menu with what’s being grown in the garden, Steigerwald said that it would also buy from small, local farmers, who will then visit the classes as well.
So far the program has built a garden at Supply Elementary School in Brunswick County, Snipes Academy in New Hanover and the Hillcrest Community afterschool program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“Next year we plan to go to two more elementary schools in each county … but the most important criteria is that they are high-needs schools,” Steigerwald said.
At the end of the day, Tavon’s mother said that she would definitely continue to make time for her son’s new extracurricular activity.
“I look at it this way: if I can bring him to sports afterschool, I can fit this in,” McKinley said.
The next school garden ground-breaking will be at Brunswick County’s Lincoln Elementary School on Earth Day, Saturday, April 20 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
For more on Farm-to-School programs and events, visit www.feastdowneast.org