Schoolyard Gardens: An Education for Young Sprouts

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Schoolyard gardens at Morningside Elementary School

BY SUSAN G. COLLINS
PHOTOS BY JENNIFER BOXLEY AND SUSAN G. COLLINS

Five years ago, only a handful of third graders at Morningside Elementary School knew what sorrel was. Now, thanks to the hard work of parent volunteers, the talent and time of local chefs, the vision and mission at a nonprofit called Schoolyard Sprouts and donations from neighborhood businesses, the perennial leafy herb is on the tips of tongues of every youngster at the intown Atlanta school this year. Raised garden beds brimming with greens, an outdoor classroom, healthy compost bins and picnic tables now fill a courtyard at Morningside Elementary on Rock Springs Road.

As a part of efforts at the school to educate students about making healthier lifestyle choices, administrators and parents continued a relationship with Schoolyard Sprouts, which took seed in 2007 at the school’s former kindergarten campus. The gardening and farm-to-school program became a school health and wellness initiative resulting in a Bronze Award from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in 2009.

And, just last year, another nearby intown school, Springdale Park Elementary, earned the same award. Programs at both schools are thriving as students now plan, plant, tend, harvest then enjoy all the garden provides. Founded by a mom who was fed up with the sad spread served in her child’s lunchroom, Schoolyard Sprouts now fuels the two gardens with funding and resources to teach young palates about healthy eating, locally grown produce and environmental stewardship.

“I was a little surprised and disturbed by what I saw being served by the cafeteria, and also by what was being brought from home by the children to eat,” said Teresa Groshans, mother of two, founder and board member of Schoolyard Sprouts. “It was my original goal to provide some sort of balance in the kids’ lives, by exposing them to healthy foods they may also like, while encouraging environmental awareness.”

Groshans and her team of gardening warriors helped build outdoor laboratories where students dig their little hands into dirt; plant seeds, slips and seedlings; pull weeds and learn when to pluck the ripe vegetables. They have worked with local gourmands like Chef Ian Winslade from Murphy’s in Virginia Highland, who taught them to unabashedly bite the radish they just picked. Most kids gave the little red root veggie a thumbs-up exclaiming, “spicy… yucky… tasty… hot.”

“It’s important for kids to eat right when they are young,” Winslade said. “Here, they are serious about their learning and I am amazed at their knowledge and their willingness to try new things.”

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Rooftop gardens at Springdale Park Elementary School

Chef shows up during the school year, with his knife bag and cutting board in tow, to show the kids how to eat what they sow and give them ideas how he might use that day’s harvest in his restaurant’s kitchen. A few times a year, he and his staff at Murphy’s will host a dinner specially prepared with the school garden’s produce, pumping a portion of the proceeds back into the program. The sorrel will spice up a rich tomato sauce served over fresh pasta. The fresh spinach will be added to a favorite macaroni dish and sweet little strawberries (“those things are prickly!”) will grace a shortcake dessert. Later, the students will try collards, broccoli, Savoy cabbage, sweet potatoes, kale, garlic and lettuces galore.

Over at Springdale Park Elementary (SPARK), Chef Andrew James Smith from Atkins Park Tavern showed the students a new way to eat kale, baking up kale chips with them. They learned that pansies are not only adorable but also a snappy addition to a green salad. Jenna Mobley is the environmental education teacher at SPARK, and shares her knowledge and enthusiasm with the students as they work the crops in the rooftop raised beds, then return to the classroom to knit their hands-on experience with lessons and books Jenna carefully chooses. She has helped design the program and works to pull in volunteers to complement the efforts. “While the kids do most of the work, many maintenance tasks require adult assistance. One dad enlisted the support of his Crossfit gym to transport hundreds of bags of compost up three flights. No small task!”

“I think the most interesting thing we’ve seen is the support that has come full circle to benefit the program. We started out with a couple parents who wanted to have gardens, which turned into support from the community to make it happen,” said Mobley.

“This in turn resulted in kids LOVING it and more parents getting excited about it, resulting in more adult and community support—which in turn led to more administrative support and a dedicated teacher.”

She and Groshans report the momentum is growing. The goals for the coming season include rolling out newly purchased mobile kitchen carts at each school. They will complement the gardening lessons with hands-on kitchen experience and will be available for parents and teachers to make healthy snacks, like smoothies, for classroom parties and celebrations, Groshans said.

With this aggressive attitude, surely students at these progressive intown Atlanta elementary schools will know that lettuce does not just come in a plastic bag from the grocery store and will keep an open mind and open palate to the harvest the world around them offers. eA Sue G. Collins is a features writer from Atlanta’s Inman Park. She has lived in and written from Ann Arbor, Boston, St. Thomas, Southampton (UK) and Hong Kong while raising three children. She enjoys swimming in Lake Michigan, Crossfitting, eating at local restaurants and singing.

READ ON AND ACT!

Check out Jenna Mobley’s blog and beautiful photos at tendingourcommonground.com

Donate materials, funds and time to the program by contacting teresagroshans@schoolyardsprouts.org Get inspired at schoolyardsprouts.org

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