LEHIGH ACRES, Fla.—A garden at 1,500-student Veterans Park Academy for the Arts, a K-8 school in Lee County Public Schools, has been the impetus for a nutrition education program.
Last year Mark Wilson, foodservice manager at the school, received one of 10 Love Your Veggies grants from Hidden Valley. With the $10,000 from the grant, Wilson created a raised-bed garden. The garden has 52 4-x-8-foot raised beds.
Wilson and his foodservice staff planted the garden, but he said the teachers at the school were very supportive of his plan and helped with the building of the boxes for the beds. Items in the garden include several varieties of tomatoes, green and red peppers, jalapeños, cabbage, broccoli, thyme, basil and rosemary.
Wilson said a key element to the garden is getting students involved to help increase vegetable consumption in the cafeteria. Each week Wilson sends an e-mail to the teachers asking which classes would like to take a stint tending the garden. “During the day the students help take care of [the garden], so they are more apt to eat [vegetables] instead of turning their nose up at them,” he said.
“We were hit hard in this area by the economy so my plan is that once the vegetables in the garden become ready to harvest, I would be making care baskets for the kids to take home,” Wilson said about the reason he wanted to start the garden.
“I’m very interactive with the students and I talked to them about what they eat at home,” he said. “They told me at home they eat cereal or cold sandwiches because their parents work and they are at home by themselves. I asked them if they would like to learn how to cook and they said yes. That’s how after-school cooking classes got started. I had a few kids who really wanted to learn how to cook out of necessity so they could eat other things besides cold sandwiches or cereal for dinner every day.”
Each Wednesday a group of about 14 students get hands-on training from Wilson in the school’s kitchen. “I teach the kids what to do with the vegetables and how to cook them and prepare meals with them,” Wilson said. “I send recipes home with them so that when they get home they are able to do something with the vegetables. I hope that this thing grows so that the students see the vegetables in the garden, they eat them in the cafeteria and then they carry that home as well.”
The students in the after-school classes started with basics like sanitation and food safety before moving on to vegetables and meat cookery. This year, the students are doing a four-week cake decorating cycle to give the classes a playful element, according to Wilson.
Wilson also is getting support from the local community. A company is donating a greenhouse so that starter plants can be grown. “This year I had to buy my plants, so I hope that next year we won’t have to buy as many plants. I hope that in the years to come the garden will be self-supporting so that we don’t have to buy any plants and we can use the greenhouse here to get starts.” Wilson said he hopes the older students at the school can help him maintain the greenhouse.
“I think I scare people,” Wilson said. “I always tell people to think outside of the box, but my assistant says I don’t have a box,” he said about the next step in the program. “This is all for the kids and whatever I can think of to help the kids, I’ll do. We are starting nutrition classes for the elementary kids using the garden to tie in as a tool for proper eating. When they see the vegetables and they can pick them it helps with the nutritional eating at home.”