Helping Students Know, Grow and Eat Their Veggies

Apr 23, 2018

Getting kids to eat fresh produce might seem like an uphill battle, but in Harrisonburg schools, there’s some thought going into helping students know, grow and eat their fruits and veggies. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

STUDENTS WITH WORMS: Ewwww! Don’t drop it! Oh they’re moving!

It’s a windy, sunny day at Waterman Elementary School in Harrisonburg, and students at recess have come to the school garden to dig in the dirt and look for worms.

KATHY YODER: Let’s go over here to our finished compost and see if we can find more worms.

Harrisonburg city schools are cultivating healthy eating habits in part by giving students choices about what produce they eat – more on that in a moment – and getting students involved in gardening.

STUDENT: I see a worm!

At Waterman Elementary, Kathy Yoder is a special education assistant and the school garden coordinator.

YODER: This is what our food turned into. This is what we add all the time to our garlic, our lettuce.

STUDENT: Worms!

YODER: And the worms are our friends. Look at all of them. Who wants to hold one?

STUDENTS: Yuck! I want to touch one. I want to keep this one.

Yoder has been instrumental over the last year in bringing to life the garden’s eleven raised beds, improving the soil, welcoming parent and community volunteers, and heading up efforts like when students helped make spaghetti sauce last fall from the tomatoes they grew.

Today in the Waterman cafeteria students will be able to sample fresh greens from the garden, but five-year-old Fatima isn’t waiting until lunchtime.

CLYMER KURTZ: How does it taste?

FATIMA: Good. I’m eating some more lettuce. 

CLYMER KURTZ: Do you eat lettuce all the time?

FATIMA: I don’t eat lettuce all the time because my mom didn’t got lettuce.

CLYMER KURTZ: But you’re getting some here in the garden at school.

FATIMA: Um-hmm.

Students also help grow the food. Here’s Jayden, who helped transplant two red beet plants to a raised bed.

JAYDEN: One right there, one right here.

CLYMER KURTZ: What color are they going to be if they’re called “red beets”?

JAYDEN: Red?

YODER: Hey, does anybody want to taste kale?

STUDENTS: No! Do you remember you put strawberries over here?

This is about being part of a community that connects with its food and reduces waste. At lunch, Waterman students collect their table scraps, for composting in the garden. Here’s fourth grader Elliott:

ELLIOTT: You take fruits, vegetables, well, anything without dairy in it, and you put it in the grey bin, and then it all goes into the garden. It’s good for the plants to help us grow all the things that we taste.

Principal Jill Hart said that many students at Waterman don’t garden outside of school.

PRINCIPAL JILL HART: It’s very interesting when you start educating children and they’re realizing, “What do you mean, potatoes grow in the ground?” They don’t have that background knowledge. It is not just an educational experience, but social and emotional growth as well.

Waterman’s and the gardens at other schools aren’t the only way the city is trying to encourage healthy eating in its young students. The new Bluestone Elementary School cafeteria offers students choices in a “garden patch” serving model.

They get an entree, and maybe a cooked vegetable option – today lima beans – but students can serve themselves from six fresh veggie options, as much as they’ll eat, and then at the fruit bar select a couple fresh fruits from six options there.

Brynn Smith is in third grade:

BRYNN SMITH: So I got a chicken sandwich, and you can pick if you want the second thing.

CLYMER KURTZ: Did you pick the lima beans?

SMITH: No. And then these, you can get vegetables,

CLYMER KURTZ: Lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, spinach and peppers.

SMITH: And this is where you get fruits.

CLYMER KURTZ: Did you get veggies today?

SMITH: Yeah, I got cucumbers and carrots.

CLYMER KURTZ: Big pile? Or just a small pile?

SMITH: Small.

She said having choices in this new school makes a difference because instead of having to take a pre-selected serving of say, carrots and tomatoes, now she can skip the tomatoes, which she might throw out, and get cucumbers instead.

Her classmate Adelaide Scott likes it, too.

ADELAIDE SCOTT: I don’t eat a lot of veggies at home, so this is great for me because I can eat vegetables at school.

Andrea Early is the city school system’s executive director of school nutrition. She said that her own observations, plus preliminary data from a three-day study this year that compared Bluestone with another area elementary school, have indicated something “very positive.”

ANDREA EARLY: We did see a trend of kids at Bluestone taking more, putting more fruits and veggies on their tray, and also eating more and wasting less.

In coming months she’ll be crunching Bluestone’s garden patch numbers in hopes of improving its cost effectiveness – and possibly, eventually implementing the concept in other schools, too.

EARLY: When you offer this much choice, inevitably it’s going to cost a little bit more, but we look at cost benefit. If we can support it from our budget, and kids are eating more fruits and vegetables, well, awesome.

Back at Waterman Elementary, two students whose lunch period is just around the corner take the food scraps collected so far today – about 13 pounds of cooked corn and fresh veggies – out to the garden compost bin. They pile leaves on top, and Kathy Yoder sends them back to their recess. 

YODER: Okay, that’s good guys, and I think we’re going to wrap it up here.

They will soon head to their lunch – where they just might sample the fresh lettuce from the garden they just helped feed.