Lifestyle

Odyssey school cultivates young Bainbridge gardeners

Odyssey Multiage Program students Grace Dunning and Zach Dashe move mulch into rows at the school’s garden plot. Students have grown more than 60 pounds of vegetables in the garden, and will plant a wide variety of seeds this spring.  - Brad Camp
Odyssey Multiage Program students Grace Dunning and Zach Dashe move mulch into rows at the school’s garden plot. Students have grown more than 60 pounds of vegetables in the garden, and will plant a wide variety of seeds this spring.
— image credit: Brad Camp

Odyssey student Priya Bajwa digs her shovel into a damp vegetable bed in the school garden, unearthing a welcome sight.

“I found a couple of worms!”

“Are those good or bad?” asks teacher Peggy Koivu.

Priya, a second grader, pauses, “Good.”

“Why?”

“Because they poop.”

Since March 2008, Odyssey students have been working hard to transform the gravel and sand-ridden plot into a lush garden, while also learning about composting and farming.

In December, the garden yielded enough potatoes to be served for Odyssey’s lunch.

Students scrubbed, chopped and soaked the potatoes before baking the fries, which were a big hit.

“They were really good,” fourth-grade student Avery Johnson said.

The garden has served as not only a hands-on learning experience, but as a way to improve school lunches.

As part of the Farm to School Project, the Bainbridge Island School District is working on a five-year plan that could introduce more locally grown foods to school lunches.

“Our long-term goal is try to change school lunch,” Koivu said. “We figure if we can do it here, where we’re on a small scale, we can talk to food service about piloting. Let us be the test case. Let it be infused into the regular lunch and see if it will work for them, and maybe they can do it on a bigger scale in the future.”

Farm to School, an initiative that connects schools with local farms, has been in the works since 2004 when a task force was created to explore school food service and nutrition.

Associate Supt. Julie Goldsmith said the project’s goals include: “Having the options of having some locally produced items that could be within our lunch program, developing partnerships with our local farmers and grocers, and just really starting to experiment with food and where it all comes from.”

She said Bainbridge has taken a different approach than most school districts.

“Many have started from the cafeteria side and looked at initiating and doing the farm to school and getting more locally produced menus,” she said. “Ours really has started the other way.”

Other schools are also considering creating gardens, Goldsmith said.

“There’s a great deal of interest from principals and teachers,” she said. “All of them have talked about it.”

District food and nutrition supervisor Patty Rounsley welcomes more local options.

“The possibilities out there are exciting,” she said. “I’d love to see the day when we could incorporate school garden products or local farmer products.”

Sharing the bounty

Using grant funding, Koivu and Odyssey teachers Barb Ellis and Barry Hoonan have embarked on the mission of bringing the garden’s fresh produce to the cafeteria.

Since the plot was once the site of a school wing, the first year was dedicated to improving the soil.

“We learned from the farmers very quickly that farming is all about your soil,” Koivu said. “If you don’t have any soil, you won’t get any thing.”

The students began lasagna mulching in the fall of 2008, layering cardboard, horse manure, compost and leaves, Koivu said.

While the garden started with just a few raised beds, parents signed up to care for it during the summer.

“People came and gardened and kept it healthy and watered it,” fourth-grade student Emma Chee said.

The hard work paid off. The three beds produced more vegetables than the students could eat.  

“We ate them ourselves all summer,” Ellis said. “After the end of that, we thought, what do we do with the rest of it?”

In the fall, students made vegetable soup, and sampled many exotic crops that they hadn’t seen before.

“I wondered, ‘What are they going to eat out of the garden?’” Ellis said. “They actually will try stuff they wouldn’t eat otherwise – patty pan squash, purple beans and broccoli.”

With more than 60 pounds of vegetables harvested from the garden, the school donated 35 pounds to Helpline House.

This winter, students have worked diligently to create more than a dozen garden rows.

“Everyone is so into it,” Ellis said. “People that I have to work with really strongly on behavior in the classroom – not a word here. It’s a completely different situation. It’s so wonderful.”

It’s all about the soil

The farming has also found a place in the curriculum. Students from all grades have learned about soil, and what it takes to maintain a healthy garden.

“We talk about what we’re going to grow and the soil,” Avery said.

“The next step has been to get kids to talk about lunch, food waste and compost, and start a bin to help,” Koivu said.

When Odyssey acquired a worm bin, students could volunteer to become “worm wranglers,” who help maintain the compost.

Odyssey has also worked with the high school to increase the volume of compost.

“Now we take our food and we give it to the high school – because they have a composter – and we get half the soil,” Avery said. “You can put any food in there – even meat.”

The farming experience is more than just an enrichment activity.

“It’s like every kind of science, and every kind of math,” Ellis said.

While working in the garden can involve lots of raking, shoveling and maneuvering the wheelbarrow, each student can excel in his or her task.

“One way or another everybody finds their niche,” Koivu said. “Even if you don’t want to get dirty, you can kind of understand why we’re doing it and why it matters.”

Students have also become more aware of the sources of their food, Koivu said.

“We made huge gains last year with, ‘Where did the food come from?’ and just noticing if you buy that avocado in December, where it came from,” Koivu said. “I think it opened kids’ eyes.”

The students will “plant like crazy” in the upcoming months, Ellis said, and will rely on community support to maintain the garden this summer.

“We’re really billing this as yes, it’s a part of the curriculum; yes, it’s a school garden. But it could be a community project because in the summer you have to help out,” Koivu said.

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