Nothing says happy and healthy like an image of children harvesting, cleaning, or eating a carrot. Seriously, not everyone likes carrots, but when you see a child gardening, harvesting carrots, preparing them, or eating a bunch of carrots, you just know there is something good, wholesome, and healthy about that image. And of course, it doesn’t have to be carrots – beets, cabbages, cucumbers, etc. all work too.
That’s why I had to stop for a moment and look at the images of the kids at Fremont, Nebraska’s Public Schools After School Programs when I saw them recently. It just makes you feel a little bit better about the world.
The Fremont After School Program began integrating farm to school opportunities into their programming earlier this year, during the school year. They started by ordering some local produce from the Nebraska Food Cooperative and then featuring a local fruit or vegetable each month.
According to Leah Hladik, Director of After School Programs at Fremont Public Schools, the Kindergarten through 4th grade students participating in the After School Programs would not only get an opportunity to try the featured fruit or vegetable, they’d learn about them too. Staff and students would talk about how the plant grows, about its nutritional value, and they would compare how far that vegetable had traveled before it arrived on their plates.
Their educational efforts certainly helped the students better understand the produce they were eating came from farms, not grocery stores. But they learned more than that. They learned a little about plant science and how things grow, such as the difference between hydroponically grown bibb lettuce and other produce, or produce grown with and without chemical pesticides.
They learned some geography and math skills, discussing the difference in how far local produce traveled compared to other foods they eat. They did taste tests, comparing different combinations and recipes. And they got to take home recipes so, if they liked something, they could encourage their families to try it too.
And while I’m certain that not every student did back flips over butternut squash, they got the chance to try foods they hadn’t tried before, learning good habits about making healthy food choices along the way. By the way, I love butternut squash, so no angry messages from butternut squash growers or lovers are necessary – long live the butternut squash.
Fortunately for the kids in Fremont, Leah Hladik and the staff of the Summer “Out of School” Program took another interesting step forward in integrating farm to school nutrition and educational programming this summer. They created an After School Garden at Linden Elementary in Fremont.
With the support of the school district and the administration and Linden Elementary, and with the help of some local volunteers, two raised bed gardens were constructed. The students took ownership over the work of planting, watering, weeding, and caring for the garden. And everyone involved in the project reports that the students loved it – even the weeding part.
I know lots of gardeners, myself included, whose first thought about that is, well, I’ve got some weeds that need pulling. But it is an undeniable fact, that weeding a garden that belongs to you is not nearly as much work as weeding one that belongs to someone else. This garden belonged to the students in the program, and they loved taking care of it. That’s something anyone who has ever had a garden can understand.
During the second week of July, the students even set up a produce stand to market the produce they had raised. Word is they are still deciding whether to funnel the money back into the garden or donate it to a worthy local cause. I’ll be honest; I sort of hope they put it back into the garden.
Leah Hladik pointed out to me that all of these activities carried significant educational opportunities along with the enjoyment. Students learned about teamwork and shared decision-making as they negotiated what would be planted where. They learned about plant science. They learned math skills and measurements in the garden, as well as learning math skills while handling money and making change at the produce stand. Each of the students took a half hour “shift” at the table. And they continued to learn about nutrition and healthy food choices.
Personally, I think growing a cabbage is one of the great educational opportunities available to anyone. And the summer program students in Fremont clearly took that lesson to heart. They learned other great lessons too. From the summer program staff, and from Dodge County Extension educators who came once a week to share lessons about nutrition, healthy eating habits, and much more through the Garden Classroom Program.
Feature image: The kids in Fremont, Nebraska, show vegetables from their After School Garden. Photo courtesy of Fremont Community Learning Center’s After School Programs (like them on Facebook), and used with permission from Leah Hladik.
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