A new, healthier “show and tell:” School gardens do more than feed

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Domino’s is now serving school lunches. Yes, that’s right. Sounds abysmal, doesn’t it?

It’s called the “smart slice” — more whole wheat, less fat, less sodium — and it’s available for your children to eat for lunch in 38 states, courtesy of Domino’s and the U.S. government.

In an age when there’s so much chatter about healthy eating, farm to fresh and the importance of educating children what real vegetables are, we now have a commercialized lunch. Domino’s marketing ploy is fooling (or buying) Washington, D.C., into serving more pizza to children — just what they needed.

Pizza is not the enemy. The challenge is how do you get kids, who already have too many starches and fats regularly, to appreciate the taste of a fresh tomato, squash, cucumber? It’s not an easy sell compared to pizza. Interestingly, the “smart slice” is not available to purchase at Domino’s restaurants. It’s only for schools.

While policymakers are making a muck of the school lunch, philanthropists are actually making inroads.

Ted Turner helped start Captain Planet Foundation in Atlanta, which educates young people about nutrition. In 2009, they started experimenting with school gardens in Atlanta, reaching about 60 schools in the area. This fall, they’re starting in Ventura County with a pilot of 10 schools.

Last week, I visited one of the gardens at Rio del Norte School in Oxnard.

Gena Mathwin is a teacher and the garden coordinator at the school. A passionate gardener herself, she was swapping ideas for cooking radishes with the Captain Planet gardens program manager, Kyla Van Duesen, who had flown in from Atlanta to check up on the local gardens.

Her crew of third-grade gardeners were busy plucking weeds and begging Mathwin to allow a snail race. One little boy had snatched a squash — he couldn’t wait for the harvest.

In about a dozen bins, donated by a local agricultural business, the children were growing tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, carrots, radishes, eggplants and herbs. David White, a garden coordinator for Ojai-based Food for Thought, a healthy schools program, was hovering around the children, giving them tips while inspecting the irrigation.

It’s more than just an exercise in gardening, though, Duesen explained. Given the increased emphasis on meeting Common Core requirements in schools, Duesen has crafted lesson plans for teachers like Mathwin that fuse math and science with gardening: i.e., fractions, geometric shapes, angles or photosynthesis, development of organisms.

That way gardening isn’t merely an extracurricular — it’s a part of the classroom.

School gardens have been in vogue for some time now. They are not a novelty, per se. But the Captain Planet program is trying to minimize the cost of an average school garden.

For $2,500, each school gets a set of garden spaces (installed), Common Core-based garden lessons, gardening tools, seeds, plants, teacher learning, a mobile cooking cart with a stove, blender, pots and pans, and a sustainability kit (to prevent your garden from wilting as you transition from one academic year to another).

Compared to other gardening programs that can cost significantly more than $10,000, the kit is modestly priced. Schools just apply to the foundation; Captain Planet bears the costs.

At Rio del Norte, the children come from a mixture of households, some more affluent than others, some with more accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables than others.

Ironically, children of farm workers are getting their first taste of fresh produce. While their parents may work on county farms, they don’t have the means to buy too many fruits and vegetables for the dinner table. The gardening bins are giving them their first exposure.

How did they select what to grow?

“It was everything we wanted to eat,” one third-grader quickly said. And then she took me over to the tomato bin to show her favorite bit of the garden. Another boy ran over with a solar pizza box oven; he was eager to test it out using the veggies.

The following day, the students would be preparing a meal for their parents using those ingredients. “Show and tell” just got much more exciting.

This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.

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