Nutritious Lessons

By Eve Pranis

"A parent volunteer in my multiage class was appalled with the sugary snacks he saw the children eating during mid-morning break," reports Wesminster, VT, teacher Irene Canaris. "As a farmer concerned about children's awareness of healthy eating, he offered to help us create a 'snack garden' that now nourishes the entire class throughout the school year."

Food -- one of our most basic human needs -- is vital for healthy bodies and minds. Yet what messages about food are our kids absorbing? The media, fast-food culture, and school meals that promote fats, sugars, salt, and additives, help set the stage early on for heart disease, cancer, obesity, and other diet-related diseases. Health and nutrition experts agree that young people in this country are not eating enough plant-based foods. But many teachers in our network think they've discovered a strategy for solving this dilemma: Get 'em growing! This and related articles will highlight how growing classrooms have honed in on nutrition in their garden projects.

Irene's students plan and plant the garden each spring, then with their families take turns caring for it during the summer. When children return in September, their first fall snack preparation adventure is harvesting and canning 85 pints of dilly beans. And that's just the beginning of the garden snack menu. In math class, students multiply a recipe for pickle brine, then make crock-style cucumber pickles. "Children who initially refused to sample a fresh green pepper were clamoring for them after watching their friends eat them in class," reports Irene. Other snack foods include fresh cherry tomatoes, carrots, apples, and peas, and transformed vegetable treats such as carrot cake, carrot soup, roasted pumpkin seeds, baked potatoes, and mashed potatoes with rutabagas. To increase the quantity and variety of nutritious snacks, the class decided to write letters to local food businesses, describing the program and asking for donations. Locally produced cheddar cheese, apples, peanut butter, and crackers are now regularly featured foods.

But Irene's snack garden does more than just provide healthful foods: It nourishes students' bodies and minds while also supporting the curriculum. Students design garden maps, conduct pH tests, take soil temperatures, and conduct investigations in their classroom GrowLab. "When our children are planning to triple a carrot cake recipe so 40 of them can eat it for a snack, 3 times 1/2 cup of raisins becomes a meaningful math problem," explains Irene. "As they keep journal entries about their garden, they are becoming articulate writers. If they are sitting beside their garden on a warm September day with sketch paper and pastels, capturing the last yellow of the sunflowers, surely they are having an intimate aesthetic experience."

Is the snack garden encouraging students to make healthier food choices? Here's some feedback straight from a parent: "When I pick him up, inevitably the first unsolicited bit of information I get from him concerning his day is about what he had done in the garden and/or what he ate for snack. He has an awareness of the process of getting food to the table and also a wider range of food he will eat."

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