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USDA farm-to-school grant to benefit 9 Forsyth County elementary school gardens
School nutrition
Keeping the growing going

Teachers and students tend to campus gardens during the school year, but someone else must step in when class is out for the summer. Each garden – there are nine in elementary schools – is tended to by the PTA or other volunteers who commit to help.

Volunteers set a schedule for weeding crops, watering produce and feeding animals.

A USDA grant will be used to create a uniform curriculum for those gardens once school resumes.

Some are quiet, their vegetables planted neatly in rows, green stems poking out of the carefully flattened dirt.

In others, hens cluck and peck at their coops, the birds’ feet leaving three-pronged imprints in the soft ground.

Though most school gardens look, sound and smell different, the nine in Forsyth County elementary schools will soon have a certain uniformity to them, thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant recently awarded to the school system.

The 65 recipients of this year’s farm-to-school grant – an annual endowment aimed at increasing the amount of local foods served in schools throughout the country – were announced Monday, with Forsyth County Schools receiving $91,106.

The money will go towards standardizing the gardens in elementary schools and developing a district-wide program that uses the garden as an outdoor classroom, according to Valerie Bowers, school nutrition program director for Forsyth County Schools.

The money will also be used to expand the district’s farm-to-school program, which has won a state Golden Radish award consecutively in the last three years.

Bowers said the USDA grant stems from a need for consistency throughout the district, something school gardens are currently lacking.

“This all started a few years ago at Sharon Elementary,” she said. “Sharon participated in the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Feed My School for a Week Program and as news about [the initiative] spread through the schools, we started talking to teachers with gardens and we started to realize everyone had gardens at different stages of production.

“One garden might not have had all the bells and whistles [another] had, and it was difficult sometimes to share curriculum ideas and use [the gardens] to teach different things when schools didn’t have similar gardens. That’s what this grant was all about.”

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Prior to applying for the grant, Bowers said the county’s elementary schools banded together to create a “green team,” where teachers, administrators and members of parent-teacher organizations met to discuss what stages their school gardens were at and what their needs were.

The schools also worked to clarify and ensure all gardens met the federal requirements necessary to use the homegrown food in school cafeterias.

“The [team] talked about fencing, irrigation and tested out the market for what things cost,” Bowers said. “They also estimated [the price] to provide all schools with the same type of equipment, and that’s where the [grant amount] came from.”

As more and more county schools are working to become STEM certified, gardens are playing an increasingly important role in school curriculums.

“It’s not just about the school nutrition program,” Bowers said. “Teachers are using mobile classroom kitchens to teach math or [science]. They may use garden tomatoes to make salsa, but the math project is learning how to expand on the recipe.

“Say it serves 25 but you want to serve 50 – students are learning the math behind that.”

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Gardens also provide a hands-on method for teaching the sciences and other subjects, Bowers said.

“Those that have hens, the students learn about the life cycle with the eggs,” she said. “School gardens are great because they get children outside so they can touch and see things, and kids tend to want to try things if they see it grow.

“It’s also a fun way to teach kids about not just nutrition and is an engaging way for kids to learn about things using garden food, the experience of being outside and seeing things grow.”

As part of the grant, Bowers said each school will develop two lesson plans for a total of 18 to be shared throughout the elementary schools.

This will create the educational uniformity the schools need.

“Some kids don’t know where food comes from – no, potatoes don’t grow on trees,” Bowers said. “It’s amazing when they can actually see something growing and chart day to day and you can see how interested they get.

“It’s just a very exciting activity for kids and teachers and they really do enjoy it, and now all the schools can do all these interesting things.”