Vergennes education takes root in school garden

VERGENNES — As Lisa Sprague enters a classroom at Vergennes Union Elementary School carrying a bundle of freshly harvested vegetables, she is confronted with a throng of students hoping to help her do whatever is necessary to make the food ready to eat.
Such a scene has become not uncommon for Sprague, the food service manager at VUES. The school recently kicked off the second year of its student garden, which not only produces food for the school lunch program but also gives students hands-on lessons in many subject areas.
“All the food grown in the garden is grown for the school,” Sprague said. “Last year we planted basil, harvested it over the summer, and used it in pizza crusts and salads throughout the school year.”
The idea for the garden came from a desire to teach the students about the importance of fresh and local produce, and how it benefits the community. Sprague said the garden was seen as particularly useful in teaching the children about science and health and fitness, areas where food that has been locally grown and tended has the greatest impact.
Principal Sandy Bassett said the big goal of the garden was to improve nutrition and health of the school community.
VUES started its garden last year after the school received a $14,000 grant from the Farm-to-School program, led by Vermont Food Education Every Day, a nonprofit collaborative project of the Food Works, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and Shelburne Farms. Its goal is to teach students about their food, where it comes from, and how choices they make regarding food can effect their lives and their environment.
This year, VUES sold reusable grocery bags in order to raise money for the maintenance of the garden. But Bassett said the garden does not require a lot of money for upkeep. It does, however, need constant attention from students and volunteers in order to stay in functioning condition, he added.
Sprague, parent Lynne Rapoport, and the VUES students originally laid out their garden last year in two 12-feet-by-4-foot beds planted with vegetables. This spring they increased it to four beds of that size. So far, the garden contains tomatoes, squash, green beans, basil, corn, cucumber, garlic and green-tailed onions, among other edible delights. Sprague hopes eventually to expand the garden to seven such vegetable beds so that each grade at VUES can have its own individual bed of plants to tend.
Even with the existing four plant beds, however, each grade is enormously involved in the garden.
“Every student in grades kindergarten through sixth has had a hand in planting the saplings, taking care of the plants in the classroom, or harvesting the plants when the time comes,” Sprague said. Over the summer months parent volunteers tend to the garden on a weekly basis in order to ensure the food is fresh and ready to be eaten when their children return to school in the fall.
Sprague said the garden, in which Rapoport has played an instrumental role, has been successful in teaching the students about the benefits of locally grown food. She explained that it has instilled a new attitude of “I helped fix it, now I’m going to eat it” among the students, which has subsequently led them to make healthier choices at home.
“This couldn’t have been done without the school community and students being excited about planting and watching something they’ve done grow into food that they can then eat and enjoy,” Sprague said.
Bassett said the Farm-to-School program has caused a change in the philosophy of the school, and has led to an overall shift toward a healthier lifestyle.
“Our snack cart isn’t what it was three years ago,” he said. “It is now dominated by healthy options and foods, and our school lunch menu contains things that kids might not have tried otherwise, such as cauliflower.”

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