Nutritious Business Reaps Rewards

By Eve Pranis

Fed up with the preponderance of junky snacks that showed up in her Santa Barbara, CA, school, kindergarten teacher Judy Sims set her sites on increasing students' exposure to and interest in nutritious foods. Her springboard? The school garden. After all, it's also an ideal context for making observations and discoveries using the five senses; exploring science concepts, such as life cycles; testing students' ideas; and enriching other subject areas.

Well before they dreamed up a business venture, Judy and her students were inspired to grow greens to add interest and nutrition to the school salad bar. "To extend what we were able to provide, we cultivated a business partner - a local Trader Joe's store - which donated dressings, toppings, juice, and other salad bar items," says Judy. (Before long the district initiated salad bar programs in every school!) Buoyed by their growing success, Judy's classes shared their emerging interest in fresh, nutritious foods with the broader community in the form of a small weekly "farmers'" market on the front steps of the school.

A local senior citizen, who the children affectionately call Grandma Elizabeth, stepped up and offered to manage the new market. The venture's start-up costs were minimal. The complete display consists of only a garden cart, which brims with products such as vegetables, potted plants, and baked goods and gets rolled out front once a week. "We decided to schedule our sales for the end of the school day on Thursdays, since the whole school is out early and parents are in the area," says Judy.

Mixing Business and Pleasurable Learning

The school's farmers' market has long since become an enduring endeavor. Each year, before the money can flow in, the kids have to accomplish a variety of tasks. The whole crew helps make decisions about what to grow, tends the crops, and harvests the bounty."I organize 'rotation stations' in the garden where small groups of students can work with two adults on various activities," says Judy. She explains that one group might be directed to observe garden changes - ripening peas, for instance - and determine what needs to be dealt with that day or week. At other times, clipboards in hand, the entire class might engage in group language and observation activities, such as writing about the planting process. Each harvesting team is responsible for washing produce and reporting quantities and total weight to the class. At times, curious minds also harvest new learning opportunities. "Once when we picked corn, we listened to that song from 'Oklahoma' that references corn being as high as an elephant's eye, and we wondered whether that was, in fact, true," reports Judy. A new research project was launched.

The harvesters decide how each item should be cleaned and packaged, if at all. Student-designed labels identify the bounty inside. "We discuss what prices should be for different items by thinking about the amount of necessary inputs (such as water and fertilizer) and discussing whether we want to be competitive with local stores," explains Judy.

Stocking the Stand

A field trip to a nearby pesticide-free greenhouse yielded a partnership that has helped students maintain a full booth and, in turn, a high level of customer interest. The grower agreed to sell tomatoes and cukes at wholesale prices to the youngsters who then resell them at lower prices than offered at local stores. (An area flower grower followed suit.) "We round out the produce we have with lemonade, crafts (pottery heart necklaces), baked goods, donated seed packets, and our own packaged seeds, such as lupines," says Judy. The children laminated a sign to post the day before each market, which entices shoppers and announces the hours of operation.

The youngsters rotate working at the market and reporting about the day's events and sales to the class. Older fifth and sixth graders who need to complete community service requirements often help grandma Elizabeth coordinate the market. Together they count the money and Judy deposits it into a free checking account dubbed the Monte Vista Community Farmer's Market Fund.

"At the end of the season, we reflect on successes and challenges and then consider how we might change things next time," says Judy. For instance, when they've had lots of lettuce leftover, students wondered why customers weren't buying very much. Was it too pricey? They realized that because they had a bumper crop that was all ready to pick at once, some heads looked downright bad by the end of the day. Their solution? Stagger the lettuce plantings the following year so plants would mature at different times.

The market's $30 to $100 in weekly earnings have gone to purchase plants, mulch, snacks, tools, and other items related to the garden or environmental education. One class even used some of their earnings to buy an entire salad bar unit for the cafeteria!

Nutritious Lessons

The farmers' market undertaking didn't just develop business-savvy kids. Participating youngsters naturally increased their penchant for peppers, boldness to try broccoli, and then some. "When we've done taste tastes with homegrown versus store-bought carrots, the kids discover that fresh foods do, in fact, taste better," says Judy. "Weeks after the class had compared different types of sweet peppers, a mother said to me, 'I don't know about other parents, but when we went to the grocery store, she actually wanted me to buy sweet peppers.'"

Through a recent grant, Judy received funds to support nutrition awareness through a special snack program. She explains that in order to encourage calm enjoyment of food, and reinforce the concept of sharing with all, she tries to make snack time a special ritual. The class sits in a circle on the floor around homemade laminated place mats or a tablecloth, which always features flowers and sometimes, a homemade centerpiece. Parents, who generally applaud the project, send in additional items such as peanut butter that students can have with their vegetables, fruits, or other healthy snacks. "I want to honor and positively reinforce kids' bravery in trying new garden foods, so when they do so, I ask them to share their experience with me," says Judy. "A child might respond, for instance, by saying, 'I tried zucchini and I think that maybe I like it.' The number one thing the kids gain through this entire project is a genuine understanding that it's worthwhile to grow, eat, and sell fresh organic produce."

Judy advises other teachers considering launching a farm stand not to worry about needing a highly productive garden. "Find support from a core of parents, teachers, or local farm markets for donations of produce and plants so you can boost what you bring in from the school garden. Also try to cultivate a business partner that can help support your effort."

Here we have shared just a small glimpse of the growing endeavors that have unfolded in Judy's school. In our School Garden Registry, she shares the following: "We have native plant and flower seeds to share. I have packets of materials from teacher presentations I've given, and also many photos and slides. We have stories to share!" To learn more and to make connections with Judy, visit her School Garden Registry listing at Kid's Gardening.

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