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Van Buren Students Garden

Van Buren Students Garden

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Getting hands dirty leads to learning about clean eating

At King and Tate elementary schools in Van Buren, class time is being spent in the garden teaching about greens and grains and the importance of good nutrition.

The two schools were chosen to take part in FoodCorps, a national AmeriCorps initiative designed “to connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy.”

In Van Buren, FoodCorps representative Mary Grace Stoneking is seeking to create an overall culture of health in the classroom and community. She is targeting school lunch menus by working with area farmers and food managers to serve locally harvested foods.

She also hopes to expand students’ food horizons by incorporating hands-on lessons that involve cooking, gardening and taste testing. Such experiences allow students to try new foods, including ones they have grown and prepared themselves.

Getting out in the garden and digging in the dirt has proven to be one of the program’s most-effective methods. King students routinely work in the campus’ already-established garden. At Tate, students are mapping out the space where they will grow food.

“I am letting them help me plan the garden. This gets them even more engaged,” she said.

Outside class time gives kids a chance to learn different aspects of growing food and its benefits. Both King and Tate also have after-school clubs known as Sprout Scouts, which focus on gardening and teaching healthy food practices.

At King, FoodCorps supervisor Kim Doss sees additional benefits from the garden.

“Including the garden helps students know that local and in-season produce is a great way to incorporate good choices for a lifetime of health. Students benefit greatly from more time outdoors and gardening is a perfect learning tool for so many reasons,” she said.

Creativity also is key to opening kids’ minds to new food. “We have done activities such as ‘take a selfie with a fruit you love,’” said Stoneking. She has coordinated taste tests and challenges, such as having pupils make a snack using something from each food group.

In one instance, she brought in three types of lettuce for students to sample and then had them vote for their favorite.

“People are often surprised at how willing kids are to try the foods. They may not always like them, but they will give it a chance,” Doss said.

The teachers also are finding fun ways to teach students about healthy choices. At Tate, supervisor Wendy Crawford noted, “One of the more popular lessons has been ‘My Food Came From Dirt.’ The students have to trace something they eat all the way back to dirt and they love it.”

Doss also finds it easy to integrate nutrition across the curriculum. “It is simple to include it with all areas by just being thoughtful and creative … it could make all the difference.  I want my students to live healthy, enjoyable lives and learning healthy habits are part of the whole child education that we strive to accomplish.” 

At the root of FoodCorps is a commitment to tackle two of Arkansas’ major food challenges; child hunger and child obesity. Nationally, 1 in 4 children struggle with hunger, while 1 in 3 is obese or overweight. Arkansas is among the worst-ranking states for these problems. However, for many families, nutritious foods prove too costly. 

“Some students just can’t afford to eat healthy,” noted Stoneking. “Cheaper options are so unhealthy. Some students don’t even have a concept of what fruit and vegetables are.”

Stoneking hopes that each school’s crop will yield extra vegetables so students can take them home. “That way, families will see that they can grow their own food at little cost.”

VBSD is thrilled with the impact of FoodCorps and students’ positive reactions. The district hopes more schools will be able to participate in FoodCorps in the future. While the program has already benefited from the generosity of several local businesses, Stoneking hopes to make more community connections through the project. She also wants to involve more local farmers, food distributors and suppliers to provide students with greater varieties of produce.

“Volunteers are welcome to participate. We would love to host work days in the garden or other projects,” she said. For more information about FoodCorps, visit foodcorps.org.

By Brittany Ransom

This article appears in the February 2017 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.

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Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online