Growing up in the garden
With hard work, Chico schoolyards are becoming more than just places to play
Kids covered in mud, stomping and mashing a sopping mixture of sand, soil and straw with bare feet. It may sound like a parent’s worst nightmare, but at Chico Country Day School this is all part of a day in the school’s garden.
Amid the controlled chaos of this outdoor learning environment, garden coordinator and fourth-grade teacher Susie Bower and other teachers give lessons about nutrition and the way plants grow. Then they help hose down the kids before heading back into the classroom.
On this particular day students from Beth Colwell’s fifth-grade class were in the midst of building a cob bench to surround a nearby tree. This task seemed to suit the kids, who splashed around, unconcerned with their mud-smudged faces. The garden is tended to weekly, which means that students from each class get their hands dirty about once a month.
“It’s really fun. I don’t really like sitting in a classroom because it’s boring,” said 10-year-old Jordan Vasquez. “This feels like recess.”
Local school gardens are dependent on the help of teachers, parents and volunteers and are not coordinated through the Chico Unified School District. Most rely upon private grants, donated materials and teachers’ willingness to put in extra hours.
Chico Country Day’s current garden sprouted three years ago, and the school recently received a $2,500 grant from the California Department of Education’s Nutrition Services Division to keep the project alive.
The grant was one of 4,000 allotted statewide for an educational trend that has taken root over the years in many other Chico elementary schools, including Nord Country School, McManus, Parkview, Chapman, Neal Dow, Citrus, Hooker Oak and Emma Wilson. Marsh Junior High and Bidwell Junior High schools also have garden projects, as well as Blue Oak Charter School, Chico Community Children’s Center and Mi Escualita Maya preschool.
However, because of the need for grassroots efforts, many gardens sprout up for a year or two and then wither from a lack of support.
“It’s a huge challenge as the need grows to educate kids [while they are] young about where their food comes from,” acknowledged Jeremy Miller, a volunteer who spearheads Bidwell Junior’s project and assists other local school gardens.
With many gardens having come and gone over the years, it’s hard to know exactly when the first school garden was established in Chico. Bidwell Junior has a greenhouse remaining from the ‘80s, when the school included grades seven through nine. At one point, with a garden and greenhouse equipment, the school nearly had a full-blown agriculture department, Miller said.
Chico’s newest school garden is at Chico Junior High School. Funding for the project came from Slow Food Shasta Cascade, an affiliate of an international organization that is involved with education and preserving non-fast-food culture. The group helped the school win a $2,000 grant from the national Slow Foods organization to install a garden, and a $500 donation of equipment from OXO, a tool company.
Noelle Ferdon, a volunteer with Slow Foods Shasta Cascade, said the garden will teach students about whole foods—an especially important subject considering the school’s lunch program consists mostly of prepackaged and highly processed food. Kids there began planting vegetables in garden boxes during a ribbon-cutting ceremony last month. Looking to the future, the plan is to build more garden boxes and an orchard of fruit trees.
Eating healthfully is just one learning aspect of the garden. An industrial technology class that mainly focuses on life skills will be installing drip irrigation, and life-science classes will administer soil tests. Additionally, the school’s assistant librarian will be designing a stepping-stone project that will incorporate art into the garden.
Slow Food Shasta Cascade plans to continue to support Chico Junior’s garden project, but the organization wants to let teachers have the freedom to craft their own curriculum. The group is hoping to implement an adopt-a-garden program, whose members would take on the responsibilities of weeding and watering when school is out during the summer. For now, the plan is to run the program for Chico Junior, but eventually Ferdon would like the community to expand the program to all Chico school gardens.
“I hope there is more of a district-wide collaboration,” Ferdon said. “There has to be some way for all of these individual gardens to support each other.”
Back at Chico Country Day, digging in the school’s garden doesn’t seem like work to the students. Still, their efforts there contribute to the fresh produce served in the cafeteria. At the salad bar, which is occasionally supplemented by produce from the garden, teachers put a sign on the homegrown vegetables so the kids will be sure to eat the greens they worked hard to grow. The kids planted a variety of vegetables this year, some of which they will eat during a field trip this week.
“We are growing some potatoes for our overnight camping trip,” explained 10-year-old Annaliese Kuhn, a fifth-grader.
Evidently, there’s just something about hands-on experience that gets the children excited. In addition to the kids eating healthful produce at school, the teachers have found that time spent in the garden translates into them eating healthier on their own.
“I’ve seen kids pull a turnip up in the garden and say, ‘Whoa! Ms. B., what is this? Can I eat it?’ “ Bower said. “They would never eat if it were on the table at home, but because they helped grow it they want to.”