Centennial Elementary School

centennial elementary schoolWhat is the secret to a sustainable school garden program, one that thrives long-term from year to year? One key factor for continued success is program leadership that carries on, even as individual participants come and go. In an academic setting, educators and other school staff, garden program coordinators, parent and community volunteers and student gardeners are in constant transition. Even a robust garden program may suddenly find itself struggling if the one individual who was its main driver moves on.

Helping to create sustainable school garden programs was one of the goals of the Nutrition Services Department of the Weld County, Colorado School District 6 in fulfilling its motto, “Nourishing Students. Creating Success.” This department serves nearly 22,000 students at 35 schools district-wide, serving delicious, healthful, from-scratch meals to students, with an emphasis on locally sourced fruits, vegetables, dairy and proteins. According to Food Hub Manager Natalie Leffler, “As schools established or expanded school gardens, Nutrition Services saw an opportunity to support the gardens by creating a Garden to Cafeteria protocol to guide how schools could safely sell their produce back to Nutrition Services to serve in their own cafeterias. This provides schools with financial support for their gardens and also increases fruit and vegetable acceptance and meal participation throughout the school, by serving the popular garden-grown fruits and vegetables alongside other fruits and vegetables in menu items and salad bars.”

In addition, Nutrition Services recognized that some school garden programs could benefit from programmatic and teaching support, as well as financial support, and began offering these resources to schools in the district. “While some of our school gardens have Garden Leaders, the majority do not, so we expect that this program will facilitate the use of gardens as an educational tool for teachers who lack extensive garden experience or knowledge,” notes Ms. Leffler.   One of those schools was Centennial Elementary School, a 600-student, K-5 school at which over 92% percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch. This school had a garden program in the past, but when the individual who led the program moved on, the program was abandoned and the garden space sat untended.

As part of their effort to get Centennial Elementary’s garden program up and running again, Nutrition Services applied for and was awarded a 2017 KidsGardening Youth Garden Grant. The grant funding enabled the program to replace raised beds in need of repair, invest in helpful watering equipment and tools, purchase seeds and berry plants for the garden space, and devote more time and effort to learning in the garden (with the help of KidsGardening curriculum resources) rather than fundraising. Says Ms. Leffler, “With our grant from KidsGardening, we were able to hit the ground running for the 2017 growing season! We’ve been able to fill our garden with several types of lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, melons, peas, carrots, wildflowers, and more! Our wonderful and endlessly enthusiastic Student Wellness Team has participated in all parts of the growing cycle, from planting seeds, mulching them in with straw, weeding, watering, and harvesting.” Over the summer months most of the produce went to the Summer Food Service Program, which provides free food to children across the district when school is not in session. Once school began again, produce was served at the cafeteria salad bar, used in nutrition programming, and even shared with other school cafeterias when the harvest was abundant.

Another important way to ensure garden program longevity is to establish strong connections to the classroom and the academic curriculum. Centennial’s Wellness Specialist, along with an Americorp*VISTA member, are developing an online resource for teachers, to guide them in creating and/or growing a garden program at their schools. “Since aligning to state standards is very important to our teachers, we have been using the curriculum resources from KidsGardening and adapting them to Colorado State Standards to then pass on to teachers,” notes Ms. Leffler. “We also used the curriculum resources to guide some informal lessons with Centennial’s Head Start summer school program this past summer. Normally, our School Garden Program at Centennial focuses on 3rd to 5th grade students, but partnering with summer school allowed us to reach the younger grades too.”

KidsGardening is proud to be able to support the innovative and important work of the Nutrition Services Department of Weld County School District 6 as they work to bring the many benefits of gardening – improved nutrition, enhanced academics, and social and emotional learning –to a new generation of gardeners.

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