15960 Veterans Memorial Boulevard, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Something strange is going on at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in North Naples.
It’s almost lunchtime, but the students aren’t excited about the pizza or the tacos.
They are talking about the salad and the raspberry dressing.
“Did you know it comes from here?” Nathan Standish, 11, asked. “After we’ve done all the hard work, we get to taste it.”
That is music to administrators’ ears.
Veterans Memorial has joined a growing movement in which schools are planting gardens and growing vegetables that students can eat.
Although the school has been able to save some money, the school’s biggest goal is to educate children about healthy, locally-grown fruits and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become a national concern.
Veterans Memorial Elementary School jumped on the good food bandwagon after parent Tracy Vessillio approached the administration about enhancing the quality of food served in the school cafeteria. She said she thinks the gardens are a great idea.
“We can get a high yield from a tight situation and bring that fresh food into our cafeteria,” she said. “The response has been amazing. It is not only a learning experience for our students, but it is giving those students who maybe weren’t as confident in the classroom some confidence outside the classroom.”
As her class worked on a garden one sunny afternoon, Shelby Wessling, 11, said she thinks the gardens are cool.
“It is making our school greener,” she said.
Of all the things that the students planted that afternoon, Shelby was most excited about the bananas.
“But I won’t get a chance to eat them because I won’t be here next year,” said the fifth-grader.
Vessillio said the garden also teaches students about delayed gratification.
“They plant something, but they have to wait for it to grow,” she said.
Once the school made the decision to start gardens, officials contacted Bill Goulding, assistant director of nutrition for the Collier County School District. He suggested that the school put in Earth boxes, small planters the United Nations gives countries to develop a sustainable food source. The school was also able to partner with other schools around the world to compare how their projects were working, said Christopher Marker, assistant principal at Veterans Memorial.
The school went beyond that, though, and contacted the master gardening program through the Collier County Extension Office, which suggested the students raise gardens with tile boarders instead of treated lumber. In those gardens, students have grown lettuce and herbs, which are picked by the cafeteria staff and used to prepare lunch.
Marker said the only way for the program to work is for students to choose to eat the vegetables. No student is forced to take salad.
A walk through the cafeteria on salad day found that about 60 percent of the students were eating salads.
“We want to show other schools that it can be done,” Marker said.
In another Southwest Florida school, the seeds of that idea are starting to sprout.
Thanks to a $3,000 grant from the Bonita Springs Community Foundation, Bonita Springs Middle School has partnered with ECHO, a nonprofit in North Fort Myers that works to promote sustainable agriculture. ECHO, which stands for Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, is built around helping developing countries learn smart farming techniques that help both the environment and farmers.
A local partnership was too good to pass up, though, said Executive Director Danny Blank.
“In this case we were asked, and we have so many of these types of requests coming in,” said Blank. “It seems if we could do something like this well, it could be a real gift to the community and could serve as a pilot, as a springboard for other schools.”
Blank said he sees gardening as a lost skill — something practiced by grandparents but more recent generations know gardening only as landscaping. It means children have lost sight of where their food originates, said Lisa Gaskalla, executive director of Florida Agriculture in the Classroom.
“This generation of children that are going through the school system are several generations removed from the farm,” said Gaskella. “A lot of them do not understand that the food they buy at the grocery store, that they get at the restaurant: all of it grows on a farm. Our mission is to help kids understand that they need to be understanding of farmers and how they grow the things that are necessary for them to live.”
Bonita Springs resident Brenda Tate helped grease the wheels between ECHO and the community foundation, dreaming up the idea after conversations with fellow community members.
But, she corrects, “It’s not a new idea. Alice Waters, out in California, is the woman we look to for inspiration for this type of thing. She works in her community with an edible school yard, so there are great examples.”
Waters is a founder of the slow food movement and owner of the restaurant Chez Panisse in San Francisco, which has thrived since 1971 on daily menus crafted entirely from locally grown, locally ranched vegetables and meat.
Locally, Tate said, the program could go nearly anywhere. Children might discover a career in horticulture, other students might get impassioned by healthy eating and still others might get inspired by the geography lessons that go hand-in-hand with their studies.
“We see all of those things as great possibilities,” said Tate. “We’re only limited by our imaginations at this point.”
The Bonita Middle project, still in its planning phase, will not only incorporate fruits and vegetables, but also trees, butterfly-attracting plants and “beverage” plants such as coffee beans and tea leaves in one shady, cool spot at the back of the school. Another corner of the campus is a wetland, mostly barren, but a perfect candidate for new cypress seedlings, said Blank.
“There actually is one cypress tree springing out of the wetland,” he said. “It wants to be restored. It’s just crying out to be restored.”
Some classes are already researching plants appropriate for the Southwest Florida climate and soil. It is a lesson in geography, science and even language studies.
“The biggest thing for these kids is when they do something hands-on and they actually experience something for themselves, they take it with them for the rest of their lives,” said Chandra Caris, who teaches social studies to students identified as academically gifted. “They will be more active, I think, in these types of programs later on. We’re definitely excited about the fact that ECHO has given us this opportunity.”
To sustain them, though, school garden programs require big community support to keep up the momentum, Blank said.
“I want to believe this can happen,” Blank said. “I have seen many ideas similar; because they require momentum from other people, they peter out. These things take work: you have to prune, you have to replace plants that didn’t make it. The reason you see schools as wastelands is it’s easy. It’s the path of least resistance.”
Veterans Memorial has proven that it is possible to keep a good thing going, though, through parent support and passionate community partners.
The school invited the Collier Fruit Growers to come in and help build another garden. In addition to banana plants, the students will have avocados, Barbados cherries, cassia trees and star fruit growing at their school.
“I never knew cherries came from a tree,” said Brianna D’Amico, 10.
Theresa Golden, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the school, said her students used the garden as an opportunity to learn math.
“We measured the area and the perimeter,” she said. “They are really excited about it. And this is something where they can actively participate. They are not just sitting in class.”
Golden said she hopes her students learn other lessons from the garden, too.
“I want them to know there is more to life than junk food. I want them to know that you can spend time with people, doing quality things for the earth,” she said. “This will benefit them in the long run. And they can watch it grow.”
The garden concept at school is not new to Collier County. Veterans Memorial Elementary School has a garden similar to several other schools in the county, including Calusa Park Elementary School and East Naples Middle School.
But Veterans Memorial Elementary School separates itself with its fruit and vegetable co-op. Every Thursday, parents and teachers can pay $20 for a bag of organic fruits and vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, lettuce, bananas, oranges and star fruit.
There is an overarching benefit, though, that bridges nearly every effort and hope these school programs contain.
“This is where they spend eight to 10 hours of their day inside walled rooms, and when they go out it’s just chain link and grass with the occasional trees here and there,” said Blank. “I think it’s a great disservice, and it’s grievous to me that they’re being raised and they don’t get the experience of God’s creation, and miss the diversity and functionality of food, the different roles that trees and wildflowers and food plants play, and the cycling of nutrients and the purification of water and the habitat for animals.”