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With school gardens, it takes a villagePrint

Farm to School | July 30, 2015 | By Lianna Bowman

With school gardens, it takes a village

FoodCorps Service Member Lianna Bowman in front of the new school garden shed donated by Mayor Michael Estes at Traverse Heights Elementary School.

Last month, during the last week of school at Traverse Heights Elementary School, second and third graders headed outside for their final garden lesson of the year. With the help of school garden volunteers, they excitedly harvested lettuce and kale they grew themselves for a salad and made their own dressing using their own herbs. Traverse City Mayor Michael Estes was a special guest, and he commended the students for trying new healthy foods. We ended the lesson with a taste test of the salad—and the students devoured it.

The scene was a perfect way to culminate nearly two years of my work as a FoodCorps service member based at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities (formerly the Michigan Land Use Institute), connecting kids to healthy food in the classroom and in the garden.

The Traverse City community is incredibly supportive of food education, which is essential for school gardens because they so often have limited budgets and rely on volunteers. Over the years, the Traverse Heights school garden has been lucky enough to have a number of people donating time, knowledge, and supplies. Without all of their contributions, students would not have had the opportunity to plant, tend, harvest, and enjoy their own salad.

Mayor Estes stands out for his own support to the garden this year. He made a generous donation to the school this spring so that they could purchase a new garden shed. Storage space can be a challenge with school gardens because there are a lot of materials needed for maintenance and hands-on garden lessons. This new shed will allow the school to store all of the garden supplies in one space, right next to the garden, and make it easier to coordinate the garden with volunteers. He has helped out with similar projects at the school in the past, and insists that no thanks are required—but he deserves a big one.

Another school garden hero has been Ann Blight, the Agriscience and Natural Resources teacher at the Career Tech Center at Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. Every year, she and her high school students grow transplants for school gardens in her greenhouse. The kale and lettuce that students harvested at Traverse Heights for their salads came from her greenhouse. With such a short growing season in northwest Michigan, sometimes it’s difficult to get seeds in the ground and allow plants to grow to a harvestable size before school lets out, so these transplants give schools a valuable head start. Other important donations have come from Home Depot, Brian Zimmerman at Four Seasons Nursery, and Pine Hill Village Gardens, to name just a few.

But most inspiring to me is the commitment of the volunteers. Over the past few years, a core group of community members has been assisting with the garden lessons and maintenance at Traverse Heights.  This allows students to have more one-on-one time during lessons, which makes the experience more educational and pleasant for everyone involved. One volunteer in particular, Greta Cook, stepped up this year to take a leading role in planning and coordinating the garden. Her devotion to the garden and to the children is undeniable, and our successes this year would not have been possible without her.

It is so humbling to see how willing this community is to help connect kids to healthy, local food. It really brings people together, and I have found support in places I wouldn’t have expected. I look forward to seeing what’s possible as more and more people become aware of the importance of gardening and food education in helping kids to grow up healthy.