The South Whidbey School Farm and Gardens program teaches kids how to grow their own good food.
MICHELLE OBAMA would be proud of the South Whidbey School Farm and Gardens program. Her initiative to get children to eat healthier food is a reality here, from the lunchtime salad bar stocked with fresh, organic produce the kids have raised, to the kale tacos they wolf down while out in the garden digging, planting and harvesting.
When kids reconvened for class this month, all three South Whidbey school cafeterias were well-stocked with vegetables grown in an adjacent field. A total of 550 students, kindergarten through fifth grade, work the farm; every child at South Whidbey Elementary spends at least 45 minutes weekly, or every other week, at the garden.
And what part of the farm do the kids love most? The pizza garden, with basil, onions, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant, and the taco garden, where they grow corn, quinoa, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and cilantro.
The kids practice gross motor skills as they dig and chop. A long, colorful flower border teaches them about pollinators, natural dyes and edible blooms. Most of all, they learn about ecology and seasonal rhythms as they turn over cover crops, plant seeds and tend the plants until it’s time to harvest. They meet indoors in an old portable classroom during December and early January, but spend most of the year out in the garden.
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Second-graders plant potatoes and harvest them the next year. Kids pick ripe pumpkins, decorate them at Halloween and then leave the pumpkins at the foot of the fruit trees in the sunny orchard, where they slowly decompose to fertilize the trees.
Fourth-graders designed pea trellises, then drew the vines growing up the supports they built. Kids gather in the leafy shade of a bean teepee to draw the scarlet runner beans they’d trained up the bamboo poles. They learn about saving seed, composting and especially about how great food tastes popped into your mouth just after you pick it.
Program coordinator Cary Peterson encourages the kids to nibble from the garden.
“I had to plant more sorrel; the kids love it,” says Peterson, pointing to plants with leaves shredded from enthusiastic nibbling. “The kids’ palates are engaged when they’re here; they’re excited about all the tastes.”
It’s taken an island, or the south end of one, anyway, to get the garden up and going. A variety of nonprofits contributed funds, matching grants and work parties to establish the program and carry it until the school district can fully support the garden.
Peterson started the half-acre farm in 2013 on an old school playing field. Since then, it has grown to include hoop houses and outbuildings. In May 2014, the schools served the first produce from their own garden. But this was only after Peterson worked with Chartwells to figure out a protocol that would allow the world’s biggest food-service company, and supplier of school lunches, to help finance the garden by purchasing the program’s produce.
“It was one thing to create the curriculum for the kids, and another to figure out how we could sell our produce to Chartwells,” says Peterson.
Now that Peterson has the kids hooked on gardening, what’s next? She’s exploring ways to freeze and store the harvest so the garden can supply fresh produce year-round for the school district. She wants to start a sixth-grade garden, and double the size of the middle-school garden.
“I want enough garden space so every kid can pull out a carrot and eat it,” she says. “That’s a lot of carrots.”