By Mary Stewart
“I found a worm!” exclaims 4th grader Trenton Cable as he gently lifts the squirmy pink prize from the raised bed garden at Cascades Elementary School in Lebanon. Other kids gather around the teaching garden to share his excitement. Trenton has been enrolled in the horticulture class here for two years and learned quite a bit about growing food, including the impressive role of worms. “Worms eat the soil and then put something back in the soil that is good for the plants,” he says as he releases the garden helper back into the growing bed where six other students are diligently planting young broccoli seedlings.
The school’s gardening instruction is cultivated by the Planting Seeds of Change project – a consortium of OSU Extension Master Gardeners and 4-H, the school district’s principals, horticulture and nutrition staffs, Oregon Department of Agriculture Farm-to-School program, local businesses and organizations.
“The OSU Extension Service was an integral part of getting this started in 2008,” says Sheryl Casteen, an OSU Extension Master Gardener who has contributed countless hours toward the success of the program. “OSU Extension Master Gardeners brought tractors and tilled the soil, built the tables for the greenhouses, purchased 200 pairs of boots for the students and provided vegetable transplants,” Sheryl recalls. Since 2008, the volunteer educators have perennially provided technical advice and advocacy, recruited sponsors and donations, and even taken their turn pushing the wheelbarrow.
This past year OSU Extension 4-H faculty Robin Galloway received a grant from the Oregon 4-H Foundation to install commercial grade fans in the greenhouse at Cascades school. “The fans ensure the students will have a successful learning experience because the fans help ward off disease that may be caused by poor air circulation,” says Robin.
“The students see the connection between what they do in the garden and what they see on the salad bar. And they eat it!” –Rick George, teacher
“I think the experience is awesome,” says Teri Knaup, a 4th grader who is personally reaping the benefits of the gardening program. “This is helping me learn how to grow plants and make them healthier,” she adds. Teri sees how what she has learned in the school garden is good for her entire family: “My sister loves the tomatoes and I love the strawberries -- we all love the stuff that we grow.”
According to District-wide horticulture teacher Rick George, the popularity of the horticulture outdoor classrooms has grown steadily. The Planting Seeds of Change effort now involves 39 classes and 36 teachers who are educating their students in teaching gardens at Cascades, Seven Oak Middle School, Pioneer Elementary, Hamilton Creek, and the new Riverview School. “I learned a lot from the OSU Extension Master Gardeners,” says Rick. “And when they became involved, the program got a lot bigger,” he adds.
Through the season of preparing the soil, planting the seeds and seedlings, adding nutrients, hoeing, weeding and harvesting, kids begin to change. “Kids will do things that they might not have tried before—that’s the change I see taking place,” says Rick. He describes how one curious student took a bite of an onion freshly harvested from the garden: “Even though I warned them they may not like it, he and other students tried the onions and they began to like them.”
Because of the exposure to the fresh foods, and the personal involvement in the cultivation, students have greatly expanded their desire for eating vegetables. Harvest time is made into a celebration in the cafeteria for the students. This year a corn roast, watermelon feed and a potato bake were all prepared by the school nutrition staff and consumed with eager appreciation. When the students have a hand in raising the fresh produce, they are more likely to eat it.
Barbara Rowe is the garden production manager for the school’s nutrition program. Through a grant from Oregon Department of Agriculture, Barbara is able to plan and produce vegetables for use in the cafeteria. On one day, for example, she provided 25 pounds of tomatoes to the cafeteria along with a wide variety of lettuce, green beans and other produce. The goal of Barbara’s work is for the fields and greenhouses to eventually provide all the fresh produce for the school cafeterias.