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Students Get Involved: In Arkansas, a Healthy Garden Means a Healthy School

These cabbages would be the pride of any gardener, but in this case the gardeners are eighty 2nd and 4th grade students from Junction City Elementary in Junction City, Arkansas. They are among the 4,000 students in 54 schools across the country participating in Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth (HGHY) – a project of USDA’s People’s Garden School Pilot Project.

With its southern climate, the schools in Arkansas got a head start on building their gardens and planting crops. On this day, Arkansas HGHY Principal Investigator Laura Connerly and project leads Janet Carson and Julie Treat of the University of Arkansas, along with HGHY Project Director Brad Gaolach and Martha Aitken from Washington State University, watched the students enthusiastically harvest cabbage, beets, basil, and green beans – pounds and pounds of them.

Directing the harvest was University of Arkansas Extension horticulture agent, Robin Bridges, and 4-H Program Assistant, Cynthia Ford, who have taken the Junction City students step by step through building, planning, planting and now, harvesting their garden.  HGHY has enjoyed the full participation of the Junction City Elementary staff from Principal Rebekah West, to the four classroom teachers – Jan Wilson, Dee McKinnon, Connie Hammett and Patricia Murray – to the cafeteria and custodial teams, providing a rich environment for the students to learn about healthy eating.

Following guidelines in the HGHY Educational Toolkit, the students densely planted their gardens using the concept of ‘square foot gardening’ which takes maximum advantage of small spaces. The four lush 4’ x 8’ gardens, planted on the corner of the school grounds, have attracted so much attention that the local hardware store has had a run on raised beds!

Dispensing gardening expertise with the folksy flair of a storyteller Robin guided the students in harvesting their lush green beans. Robin had each child pull out one of the green bean plants, and carefully shake off the dirt before removing it from the garden. Then the children plucked the green beans from the plant, rinsed them, snapped them and packaged them for the cafeteria staff to prepare for tomorrow’s lunch.

With a few square feet of garden now bare, Robin was able to engage the students in another planting lesson – raking the soil and planting seeds for a new crop of beans.

It took some serious muscle to pull the cabbage from the ground. But once the cabbages were harvested, separating the head from the outer leaves and roots provided the students with a perfect excuse for a game of cabbage tug-of-war. Immediately afterward, the heads were whisked off to the cafeteria, where the efficient staff swiftly turned the cabbage into coleslaw for the lunch line that very day.

To celebrate the day’s harvest the students were treated to a caprese salad on a stick –their just-picked basil, with cherry tomatoes and small fresh mozzarella balls, tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, threaded onto a toothpick. The second graders were more enthusiastic about the new flavors than the 4th graders – but everyone agreed that everything tastes better when it’s fresh from the garden!

Leadership for Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth is provided by Washington State University Extension, in collaboration with the Cooperative Extensions of Cornell University, Iowa State University and University of Arkansas.  The Project Director, Brad Gaolach, Ph.D. can be reached at gaolach@wsu.edu. The schools were awarded a $1 million grant under the National School Lunch Act to help establish community and school gardens in areas with a high number of low income families.

Find out how you can help introduce more fruits and veggies to schools in your area by visiting our Healthier School Day web site.  Continue to check back here on USDA’s blog as we continue to share stories that highlight how USDA and schools across the country are working to make school days healthier for students.

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