Edible Schoolyard Now a Reality in Fairfield Public Schools

By Eileen Weber

Anne Tack-Eckel, a professional grant writer and longstanding PTA leader in health and wellness, secured a $5,000 grant from the Fairfield County Community Foundation to realize the community's dream for edible schoolyards.

They say hard work pays off. And for parent volunteers in Fairfield Public Schools, that old adage couldn’t be more true. Years of painstakingly coordinating a garden program as an outdoor classroom have culminated in a $5,000 grant funded by the Fairfield County Community Foundation. The grant, which was written and submitted by the 2009-2011 PTA Council Health, Safety & Fitness Committee chair Anne Tack-Eckel, provides enough gardening books for every grade level in the entire school district.

What makes this such a breakthrough is finally getting the recognition that a garden is a viable teaching tool. For years, parents have been wading through red tape and political strife all for the sake of one ideology: Eat what you grow.

The Burr Elementary School garden was built by the Burr Elementary School community, other parents and kids from Fairfield, the Green Village Initiative (GVI), a local nonprofit that also helped build Ludlowe High School's garden, and Builders Beyond Borders. Pictured from left are Deirdre Price (GVI), Karen Sussman (GVI) and Annelise McCay, founder of the Sherman Elementary School garden and head of school gardens under the PTA Council's Fuel for Learning Partnership Committee.

“It’s time to wake up,” said Annelise McCay, who kick-started the garden initiative at Roger Sherman Elementary School in 2006. “It’s about awareness for these kids. They may not understand it now, but [working in the garden] is a lesson learned that will stay with them.”

The Rogers Ludlowe Middle School Garden was installed under the leadership of Certified Square Foot Gardener Amie Hall along with staff and students from the garden club.

McCay, coined the “Alice Waters” of Fairfield, went on to say that the garden initiative stemmed from so many parents who were appalled at what was being considered “lunch” in the cafeterias. It became clear that too many of our children were not making the connection between what we eat and how it grows.

“That was the motivation behind it—healthier eating,” said McCay. “When you’re feeding kids chicken fingers and French fries, you’re telling kids that’s what they should eat. Why does it have to be poorer quality food for a kids’ menu?”

Anne Tack-Eckel agreed with McCay. For her, it started when her youngest child was in Kindergarten. She visited the school often for lunch and was disgusted with what was offered. Since then, she has seen a huge change in the type of offerings that not only the school has provided but that kids are happily choosing to put on their plates. She feels strongly that the garden initiative was the catalyst for that change.

Math concepts go from abstract to concrete in the garden. Thanks to this grant, one of the books that every teacher will receive is a copy of "Math in the Garden."

“The foods were highly processed, high in fat, with chemicals,” said Tack-Eckel. “But the changes in the school lunch have been miraculous. I think people don’t realize how important a kid’s lunch is. What they eat is important.”

She pointed out that the school year lasts 180 days. That’s half a year of a child’s life consisting of bad food. Today, almost every single school in the district has a garden that is being used within the curriculum. In some cases, the schools have implemented the garden produce in the cafeteria.

“Kids who participate are more likely to try fruits and vegetables,” said Michelle McCabe, chairperson of the PTA Council Fuel for Learning Partnership, an organization that advocates school lunch nutrition, “There’s a sense of ownership in growing something they can eat.”

But these kids don’t just pretend to be a farmer for a few minutes. They are making the important leap between what sprouts from the earth and what goes into their bodies. No, fresh tomatoes don’t come naturally wrapped in plastic. And a fresh tomato tastes better than one that was covered in pesticides, picked unripe, and shipped from several thousand miles away. A garden is more than just health and nutrition. It’s about math. It’s about science. It’s about art. It’s about relationships and how they can grow in a garden, too.

School children planting annuals as parents cleared out the beds for the spring planting season at Sherman Elementary School.

Rosemary Field, who launched the garden at Osborne Hill School with fellow parent Karen Bassett, said never underestimate the power of a seed. To her, it illustrates the circle of life.

“The teachers are excited to have the kids with their hands in the dirt,” she said. “It’s making a connection to where our food comes from. It’s an awakening.”

Osborne Hill planted their garden this past spring. While the plants flourished over the summer, the experience was not without its pitfalls. They started with a seed exchange. But the seeds didn’t work, so they had to reseed all the plants. Then, the pumpkins got infested with squash beetles. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the sunflowers grew so large and overshadowed the pumpkins to such an extent that they grew a fungus, wiping out what was left of the crop. But the sunflowers didn’t last either. Hurricane Irene whipped through and snapped them in half.

“It’s been a learning experience,” Field said.

Their trials and tribulations have not discouraged the garden committee at Osborne. They plan to grow their plants, which are in a narrow space on the left hand side of the building, vertically next season. They received a small grant to cover the cost of a butterfly garden, as well.

Back in the spring of 2010, Girl Scouts help to measure out the garden plots and break ground for the raised beds in the North Stratfield Elementary School garden. The garden was funded in part by a donation from Whole Foods Market Westport.

So how can the grant for gardening books improve an already thriving garden program? For Tack-Eckel, the more hands-on the garden experience is, the more effective the learning. For example, one of the books that every teacher will receive is a copy of Math in the Garden. Little ones can be taught counting while bigger kids can move on to concepts like area and perimeter. The books provide a fresh angle for teachers to approach the garden in ways they might not have considered.

“It’s an additional tool to help them teach and motivate students to learn,” she said. “We hope this is just the beginning. We’d love to see area schools create a coalition to share information.”

What many don’t realize is that an anonymous donor funded the grant that made this all possible. That donor felt strongly about kids making the link between gardens, healthy eating, and our environment. And, the link between them is now clicking with kids in every school.

But as McCabe explained, the school gardens will never be a finished project. They can always change and evolve with the curriculum. Ideas can be explored and tailor-made to fit an educational need. The first challenge was getting the gardens to exist. The grant was just one more step in a long, exhausting process.

“Perseverance pays off,” she said.

For more information about school lunch nutrition, visit Fuel for Learning Partnership on Facebook. To find out more about the philanthropic grant process, visit the Fairfield County Community Foundation web site.

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