When it comes to local foods, it doesn’t get much fresher than vegetables direct from a school garden. In West Salem, Wisconsin, students are not only growing their own vegetables; they’re eating them – with enthusiasm — in their school lunches. Even more, they’re having fun planting, digging, and harvesting, while learning sustainable growing practices.
On October 12, my colleague Samia Hamdan and I travelled to southwest Wisconsin to present West Salem Elementary School with the USDA’s highest award for school nutrition and health — the HealthierUS School Challenge Gold of Distinction award. The event also served as a celebration for National School Lunch Week and National Farm to School Month, which promotes locally-sourced foods in the USDA school meals programs. So far this school year, their school lunch menu has featured many items from the school garden, including kale, peppers, potatoes, squash and raspberries. The “garden bar” offers fresh green salad, fresh veggies and fresh fruit every day utilizing produce from the school garden whenever it’s available. In addition to the school garden produce, vegetables from local sources are featured every month.
West Salem’s school nutrition director Michelle Kloser and garden manager Dave Langer make a dynamic team. A school nutrition director for 12 years, six at West Salem, Michelle enjoys creating nutritious menus that meet school meals guidelines and also appeal to kids’ finicky taste buds. Dave loves gardening and teaching kids how to garden. He’s a retired primary grade teacher who taught at West Salem Elementary School for 25 years. He’s also a long-time volunteer in the school’s garden. Now, thanks to a recent farm to school grant from the CDC to expand the garden, he’s delighted to get paid for doing what he loves.
West Salem’s school garden is impressive in its size and variety. It has 12 raised beds, with different types of salad greens, swiss chard, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, eggplant, herbs and raspberries. The garden has been in place for about ten years, but now with funding from the CDC’s Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiative, David has been able to add more raised beds, a tool shed and various garden tools. His goal is to have all 730+ students at West Salem experience the garden hands-on during the school year.
But once they grow it, will they eat it? Michelle and Lynn Strong, kitchen manager, give a lot of thought to the challenge of serving school garden produce, especially unfamiliar vegetables, to the students. “We want a quality product so we experiment with new recipes before serving our garden veggies to the kids. Tasting cups are a great way of trying out something new.” “Some of the favorites we have done are potato leek soup, summer squash vegetable medley and spinach salad with a raspberry or strawberry vinaigrette.” They have been experimenting with recipes for babaganoush (a Middle-eastern eggplant dip) to use eggplant from the garden.
Students at West Salem think gardening is very cool. Dave’s after-school garden club has grown from 30 students to 100 in just one year. One student I talked to held up a banana pepper strip from her salad and said proudly, “We grew this.”