How does your garden grow?
"Step through the arbor to a new land. Take the path where marigolds leap into beauty."
So begins the poem displayed at the entrance to the Westminster Center School garden.
The garden breaks new ground for schools. It was begun last year to feed all of its nearly 200 students with the healthy, homegrown vegetables they all helped to plant.
Teacher Irene Canaris started the garden 18 years ago to show her students how to make healthy snacks for themselves.
When the school added a new kitchen a few years ago, the wellness committee began talking about using local produce and "it made sense from there, we started talking about what we could do schoolwide," Principal Steve Tullar said.
"There was a realization that we don't have to fall into purchasing frozen or prepared foods for our kids," he said. "It's a way of life, not just nutrition, and not just fitness."
Local farmers Paul Harlow and Mike Collins help the school, preparing the land for the planting, going to the classes and helping with the plantings.
"I started when my first two kids were in school. I noticed they weren't eating good foods for snack, so I started planting them carrots for snacks," Harlow said. "It's all about trying to improve eating habits and self-awareness of kids."
Now he has another daughter, Hannah, going through the school.
"I really made a connection with all the kids in class. I prepare snacks and some of them volunteer to help me. My daughter seems to love it and it's really fun to be in school with her," he said.
Each class plants and tends a crop, from spinach to garlic to potatoes. These get harvested and rinsed and put into the lunch program.
"It's fantastic," Tullar said. "Students know when they're eating things they grew themselves. There's a different air in the cafeteria. There's a certain level of satisfaction in that."
"It gives them a lot of self-confidence in terms of what they can do themselves," grade 3-4 teacher Dena Weiss-Tisman said. "One of the biggest thrills was when the potatoes were served. You could tell. They looked beautiful."
Garden coordinator Elizabeth Harlow does taste tests, letting the students decide which fruits and vegetables they want in the lunch program.
"If you introduce it as 'This is your lunch,' noses get turned," she said. "It gives them a chance to test it before we put it in the lunch program."
"I think it provides a better meal for them," food service manager Kim Kinney said. "I also think they're more willing to try new foods, more likely to try it than they would be normally."
She mentioned an uncooked spinach salad they serve that is "not a kid's meal," but the students like it.
Weiss-Tisman said her students grew the ingredients to make their own pesto.
While pesto is rarely included on kids' menus, "just about everybody tries it," she said. "We have a lot of big pesto fans. It's pretty amazing."
The garden is more than a source for tasty greens. Canaris hopes it will "become an extension of the classroom."
The fifth-graders this year will harvest the broomcorn they planted last year and make brooms for their studies of Colonial America.
The incoming kindergartners were initiated into the garden in the late spring.
"When they came, they had an integrated curriculum for the day that included education about sunflowers," Elizabeth Harlow said. "They all trailed out to the garden and each child planted one single mammoth sunflower seed. Now they're huge and way over everyone's head. I think it will be perfect timing for school starting."
The school has also found it gives the students a chance to become connected to their community.
"Each child is developing a sense of place. In Vermont, in Westminster's farming history, in Westminster," Tullar said.
Nicole Orne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 271.
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