Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wildkittens Garden Year-round at Macclenny School in Florida

by Vicki Garrett, ACGA Project Coordinator

Macclenny is a small rural community, where everyone knows everyone else. In addition to the Wildkitten Garden at Macclenny School, Macclenny boasts a productive community garden and 10 home-based gardens for low-income families. The community is committed to each other, to the gardens, and to its participation in the Childhood Obesity Project.

Pam Jeralds, Senior Health Educator of the Baker County Health Department, Healthy Communities, Healthy People program, explained that when Macclenny began addressing childhood obesity, the community first considered growing food for a Healthy Choice Restaurant, which would promote the benefits of good nutrition. However, the community recognized that the restaurant would not directly reach children - the target audience.

The Macclenny School Garden took root when the decision was made to have the children grow veggies in their own schoolyard, right outside their classrooms, rather than in the community garden. As the “Wildkitten Gardeners” essay shows, the three-year survey process monitored and demonstrated the positive and hoped-for changes in the children’s eating habits.
The school garden, which consists of three two-tiered 4x4-foot beds, originally was conceived as a demonstration garden. Presently, however, the students play an active role in planning, planting, tending, and harvesting produce. Moreover, high produce yields resulted in enough vegetables (seven to 10 different kinds) for students to harvest and eat a different vegetable each week, year-round.

Teachers incorporate the garden in curriculum planning for math and science. Each student keeps a journal. The children talk about garden planning, how and why it’s laid out in certain ways, and keep diagrams in their notebooks.

As the children decide what they’re going to plant, they learn how plants grow and about natural cycles, ecosystems, and creating habitat for birds. They learn to make difficult decisions. For example, when students wanted to grow corn, they realized they didn’t have enough room. So, they planted cucumbers, bell peppers, squash, spinach, beans, and peas.

Helene Guest, a local gardening expert, known as the Garden Lady, is a retiree who volunteers at both the community and the school garden. Helene and Pam spend an hour each week with each classroom, focusing learning on a single food. Students learn about each vegetable’s unique qualities, including nutrition.

During the week, teachers cut up vegetables and the children eat them fresh. On Fridays, teachers prepare food for eating. During winter, they cook veggies in crock pots in their classroom; the children enjoy beets, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and spinach. During spring, they relish beans, peas, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Each week students take recipes for preparing that week’s vegetable home for sharing.

Initially, the School Health Advisory Council reported that the majority of elementary kids didn’t meet required physical exercise standards. Funding for the Childhood Obesity Project, $5000 a year for three years, was spent largely to build the school garden, surveys, and incentives.

To encourage participation in the final survey, project leaders offered an incentive for each completed questionnaire. Each parent would earn $2 towards the purchase of physical education equipment for the school, both for PE classes and for individual classrooms. The response rate was 90-94%.

Community involvement is the key to the Macclenny gardens’ sustainability. School administrators and faculty members are supportive and involved, even beyond classroom activity, assuring that required equipment, such as a hose, is available and accessible. Teachers who live nearby also tend the school garden in summer, when school is not in session.

Extensive family involvement has resulted in frequent visits to both the school and community garden with their kids. Parents and community members volunteered to work with the project surveys and volunteer in the community garden. Helene especially encourages the children to share their garden experiences with their grandparents, who, in turn, pass down their experiences.

Helene encourages recycling, seed saving, plant propagation, and composting – all of which she shares with other gardeners – to save the earth and balance the budget.

The Macclenny Wildkittens have proved their point: they are actively involved in their school garden. Not only are they eating more vegetables, they’re asking for them themselves. They are excited about watching things grow and learning to taste and savor their produce. They have successfully encouraged their families to do the same.

Helene suggests another benefit. As important as education, exercise, and better nutrition, one youngster expressed it this way: “You know, it just really works on my heart to be out here.”

Reprinted with permission from the American Community Gardening Association.

Garrett, Vicki. "Wildkittens Garden Year-round at Macclenny School in Florida." Community Greening Review 16 (2011): 5. Print.