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Taking Root


School gardens help cultivate a healthy mindset.


By John Rosales

Some people like to whistle while they dig in a garden. Eight-year-old Spencer likes to talk.

“Where’s my water?’ he says to no one in particular.

“I killed a centipede. What the heck is this—a sand rock?”

“I found a worm.” 

On a brilliant spring day, Spencer and a dozen of his equally inquisitive second-grade classmates are tending one of several student-run gardens at Will Rogers Elementary School in California’s Ventura Unified School District. Beyond the garden plot where the students are working, apple, plum, avocado, and citrus trees line the school’s high fence. The cool ocean air—the Pacific is only a half-mile away—and friendly West Coast temperatures make for consistently bountiful harvests.

But the students are doing more than cultivating their green thumbs in the year-round flower and vegetable gardens. They’re also developing healthy eating habits that can keep them fit now and throughout their lives.

“It’s important to catch them at an early age,” says Brendan Freeman, a school gardening coordinator who works with the 25 schools participating in the district’s Healthy Schools project. “I’ve had the kids jumping up and down out there chanting ‘broccoli! broccoli! broccoli!’ I was sort of dumbfounded.”

At Will Rogers, the fruits of the students’ efforts often wind up on their plates. Some of the peas, beans, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, and potatoes students grow on school grounds end up being washed, cooked, and “taste-tested” in class. Produce is also carried home by students and dispatched to the cafeteria kitchen, where it’s prepped and placed on the salad cart alongside farm-fresh products from local growers.

But it all starts in the 10-foot by 10-foot plot where Spencer is working this morning. “Worms eat dirt,” he says, still talking nonstop. “When they potty, it helps the dirt. Same with cow manure—hey, I just buried a snail for compost.”

When not gardening, Spencer and his classmates can be found reading books about soil management, the history of strawberries, and the importance of worms. Diary of a Worm is one of the most popular books in the second-grade classroom of Kris Guzman, who has been the school’s garden coordinator for 11 years.

“There’s nothing like giving kids a shovel and having them churn soil,” she says. “I want my kids to understand what it takes to work a garden, so they can do it at home and later as adults.”
Guzman’s classroom resembles a college botany lab. An extensive collection of children’s gardening and biology books crowd the front-wall bookshelves. There’s a shiny aluminum sink in the back for washing leafy vegetables, and an imposing aquarium near the windows, allowing light to shower over a colorful selection of plants, caterpillars, and newly hatched butterflies.

 Things are growing everywhere in and around the classroom. Beans and pumpkin seeds are cultivating in plastic dishes on tables, while potted plants labeled with student names line the windowsill. Just outside the back door is a patio garden and a four-foot high compost pile of soil, grass, coffee grinds, and other discards that help reinvigorate dry dirt.

“I saw a teacher throw a banana peel in it,” Spencer recalls.

Garden tools, water hoses, and pails are stored in a compact shed near Guzman’s garden plot, once a weed patch where custodians dumped gray water. The only element missing from the scene is pesticides, which Guzman doesn’t allow. Instead, she employs an “integrated pest management” system, which depends on nature’s own bugs, birds, and bees.
“We let insects help the garden grow,” she says.

After settling into his routine of digging, watering, and churning—“not turning”—the soil, Spencer reflects. “I like school because you get to garden—and eat strawberries,” he says.
The taste-testing sessions are a key component of the Healthy Schools project. As students harvest and cook their own produce, they also analyze the vitamins contained in fruits, the origins of vegetables, and the natural environment and seasons in which they flourish. During classroom presentations, farmers, chefs, and nutrition experts also expose students to the range of issues involved in living a healthy lifestyle.   

“We’re building a mindset,” says Guzman. “We want the kids to protect our earth and to think and eat healthy.”

The Ventura project began in 2001 as a collaboration between local farmers, the PTA at Juanamaria Elementary School (where the pilot program was launched), and the district. Local nonprofits and businesses also helped by donating materials, expertise, and money. Funded primarily by the district, the project does more than just teach students to make healthy food choices and how to tend a garden.

“We don’t pick everything, in order to teach the kids a complete life-cycle of a plant,” says Freeman. He and another part-time specialist assist teachers and students with the gardens, work with local farmers who sell their produce to the school, and generate revenue for the project through grant writing. “We also show children the relationship between food and the environment and the agriculture industry,” he adds.

Freeman stresses the importance of knowing about dietary and obesity issues, such as cholesterol levels, greasy foods, and plaque. He also extols the virtues of exercise; students sometimes receive a piece of fruit after running laps. Freeman, who focuses on students from kindergarten through fifth grade, believes in developing good work and eating habits at this age level. “Then you can have fifth-graders mentor the second-graders,” he says.

The ripple effect also extends beyond the school walls. Given coastal California’s temperate—and frostless—climate, produce grows year-round in the gardens, bringing in parent and community volunteers. “There is a lot of Saturday and summer work involved,” Freeman says. Behind a locked fence on the campus perimeter is the school’s showcase science garden, which was built by a Boy Scout troop and Will Rogers students. “Peppers and tomatoes ripen all summer here,” Freeman says. “Parents take home the summer produce in exchange for pulling weeds and watering.”

One of the parents, Oriana Gonzalez, was recruited by her daughter, Elora, and now volunteers a few days a week in Guzman’s class. “My daughter was so excited about the school garden that we were inspired to do our own garden at home,” she says. “The salad bar makes eating fun for the kids. They can create their own plate. It gives them a sense of independence.”

It’s never too early: Kris Guzman’s second-grade students plant, harvest, and eat their own food, learning a little science, history, and healthy eating habits along the way.

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November, 2006