As many of you loyal blog readers know, I spend half my week working with the Burlington School District in Burlington, VT, as a Garden Education Coordinator. Much of my time is spent managing a large production garden at Burlington High School (BHS) with the assistance of rotating groups of students. During the bountiful summer months, our Fork in the Road youth help out in the garden, but during the school year the vast majority of weeding, watering and harvesting is done by students enrolled in a Food Science course led by teacher Richard Meyer.
The class is a science elective that students can take for credit—just like any other class at the high school—but rather than completing labs centered on titrations and solving chemical equations, a typical lab in the Food Science class involves garden fresh vegetables and a plethora of cooking utensils.
“Students are taught the whole process from seed to harvest. They learn how to grow the veggies, take care of them, and then either harvest for food or preserve them for later use,” says Meyer, referring to the fact that over the course of the year, students not only complete a variety of cooking projects ranging from canning pasta sauce to making fresh mozzarella cheese, but help maintain the gardens at BHS and take on growing projects of their own.
In the fall, when our garden is still producing, students often spend one class a week out in the garden. These visits typically involve everyone pitching together to tackle the maintenance project of the day—cutting back asparagus, weeding around the eggplant, harvesting over 100 pounds of squash for the cafeteria, picking basil for a pesto making project. In fact, many of the cooking projects that students take on in the fall feature produce that they’ve harvested from the gardens they’ve been caring for.
Interspersed amongst these maintenance activities are short lessons on plant and soil science. For example, before planting garlic last week we discussed the differences between compost and mulch. And earlier in the season when we harvested tomatoes and peppers for salsa making, students were shocked to hear that we often eat vegetables that are botanically fruits (our whole discussion about the plant parts we consume was mind blowing for many students).
The class also grows their own microgreens in our school greenhouse, a project they keep up all winter long. As their greens mature the students harvest and deliver them to the Champlain Cafe, a small restaurant next to our cafeteria managed by students enrolled in the Burlington Technical Center’s Culinary Program.
During the winter months my involvement in the class drops off to monthly guest lectures and cooking projects (discussing the history of sauerkraut before making it, for example). But come the spring, things take off again. Students return to the greenhouse to work with me to plant flats on flats of seeds, the future starts that will be transplanted into the gardens at BHS, Hunt Middle School and elementary schools across the district.
When asked why they enrolled in the course, many students say that they’re interested in learning more about how to cook or that they just enjoy spending time outside in the garden. “Many of the students do not grow any plants at home nor do they do much cooking,” say Meyer. “This class gives them a taste of both.”
And it appears that there are many others at BHS who share an interest in learning more about these topics. This past fall, enough students attempted to enroll in the course that Meyer could have taught two full classes. The high school only allowed him to teach one, but we all have our fingers crossed that in future years the Food Science class will be able to expand to reach more students, providing youth with an opportunity to learn valuable life skills and participate in our school food system.