The First Environments Early Learning Center produces more than 600 pounds of fresh produce a year in its pesticide-free planting beds to feed its students. The garden started at the end of 2005, when the school moved to its current location at the EPA facility in RTP. The garden has grown to become an integral part of the curriculum and meal program at the school.
“It’s been a great experience for the kids to be a part of the growing it, from the seed to putting it in the dirt to digging it up to cooking it and enjoying it,” says Ken Williams, FEELC kitchen manager.
“We feel very responsible to have our children grow up learning to take care of themselves and the planet,” says Beth Lake, FEELC director.
The first crop in 2006 didn’t generate much produce, but they learned from their mistakes to harvest 300 pounds of produce in 2007. They are now producing around 600 pounds of produce in a year. This is not enough to feed the 200 students, so local produce is purchased to supplement what they can grow.
The students are involved in the planting, caring and harvesting of produce that grows in the garden. This hands-on interaction with the produce has led to the students trying, and liking, a variety of different fresh fruits and vegetables.
While I was at the school I saw one student picking cherry tomatoes of the vine and popping them straight in his mouth, while another student was happily munching on some chard.
“The students were always excited about trying the things they were growing,” said Sue Espersen, FEELC outdoor learning environment specialist.
The garden and its fresh produce was still meet with hesitation in the cafeteria.
“The first time Ken sent down a salad for lunch the kids were like ‘what do I do with this?’” Espersen says.
According to Espersen, it took about a year for the children’s palates to change, and now they love to eat their vegetables.
“Ken gets emails from parents ‘How do you make your green beans, because according to my child, mine are terrible,’” Espersen says.
The garden has brought a stronger sense of unity to the school community. Every three months, students, parents and teachers gather at the school to have a workday in the garden. This center-wide involvement in the garden has lead to a greater sense of community in the school, and a number of gardens growing at the homes of those involved.
“The garden has become the heart of the school,” Lake says.