The Children’s Garden at JCCC
November 2010, Volume 5, Number 8
Planting for the
On a spring day, children from the Hiersteiner Child Development Center (HCDC) at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) gingerly tasted peas from the pods they snapped fresh off the vine, grown inside the hoophouse garden a short walk west of the HCDC. Children had planted peas and were now enjoying their harvest. “These are the students who are changing the way we relate to food,” said David A. Smith, associate professor, hospitality management. Smith believes that school lunches and teaching children to appreciate food that comes from the garden are as important as any subject they learn in school. “Gardening is tied to all school subjects—science, math, and nutrition,” Smith said. “The garden is a good classroom.”
Smith, lovingly called Farmer Dave by the children, doesn’t just espouse his theories. Every Thursday afternoon, Smith is at the HCDC garden and orchard working with children, ages 2½ to 6. But Smith doesn’t consider it work. The time he spends gardening with the children, preparing harvested food for lunches, and reading to them during the school year is volunteer time. The soft-spoken Smith makes sure that children are learning the food cycle from seed to planting to production. “We can have an influence on the diet of these children,” he said.
The hoophouse—sometimes called a high tunnel—is an unheated greenhouse with UV plastic covering to extend the growing season to four seasons. Even in winter, the temperature remains at 60 degrees. In the summer, the sides are rolled up for ventilation. Except for the week around Christmas, the hoophouse is prepared for each HCDC class to have a 15-minute session with Farmer Dave.
There’s also Greenhouse Dave, aka David Weger, greenhouse coordinator, who supports the plantings. “Nothing gets sprayed in the hoophouse,” Weger said. The 16-by-38-foot hoophouse garden is a friendly place with a small flower cart sporting a welcome sign and to-do list of garden chores for the day. A basket of plastic sunglasses, small wagons, and child-size garden tools are ready for tasks.
The spring brought a welcome bounty of carrots, onions, lettuce, and strawberries. Smith prepared Swiss chard, one of the first harvests of the spring garden, for whole-wheat quesadillas. The chef has also prepared minestrone soup and vegan pizza with fresh produce. In fact, a whole pizza garden is planted—from wheat to tomatoes. The hope is that children will like what they try fresh from the garden and learn to prefer garden-fresh food to choices from the fast-food window.
“Each class in the children’s center plants their own box in the garden,” said Cassie Woiderski, HCDC child care aide. “The children gain exposure to foods they may not otherwise be eating. They see the seeds put in the ground, the harvesting, and even the cooking. Coming out to the edible schoolyard at least once a week gets them excited about the process. They look forward to being here.”
In April, Smith planted 20 fruit trees in mouth-watering options like pear, plum, peach, and apricot, and raspberry, gooseberry, and blackberry bushes, creating an orchard of more than one-half acre. This summer, children enjoyed a bumper crop of canteloupes and large-sized tomato plants. Even through the harsh Kansas winters, the four-season greenhouse allows children to plant spinach, kale, Swiss chard, cauliflower, and broccoli.
The garden resulted from the initiative of Smith and Lindy Robinson, dean of business, who at the time was assistant dean of hospitality management. The two had researched the Chez Panisse Foundation’s school lunch initiative, a districtwide effort in Berkeley, California, to create healthier meals. The two conceived of the garden as a means to yield produce for use in the HCDC’s school lunches. “Research in the Berkeley Unified School District indicates that when children see where food grows and help to plant and care for the food, they are more likely to eat fresh produce,” said Sara McElhenny, HCDC director, who views the outdoors as a learning tool for children. “Culinary programs are obligated to be involved in the slow food movement because we can make a difference in the eating habits of young people, habits that stay with them for life,” Robinson said.
As a way to harvest healthy attitudes toward food choices and local sustainable agriculture, children planted the first hoophouse garden in May 2008. Then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius, now U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, was in attendance with shovel in hand planting and giving support to the idea. “Kansans have been preparers of food for a long time—for the country and for the world,” Sebelius said. “So having a project that links our great history of food and food preparation with the notion that we are going to teach children about their diet and how to make it healthier is pretty visionary. What we know is if children learn, they will teach their parents. Children taught parents about seat belts, and they are teaching their parents about the effects of smoking. They are great generational educators. So getting kids to think about what is going into their mouths and how to prepare that is a wonderful initiative.”
But nature had a way of intervening in the first harvest. Later in May of that year, a Kansas spring storm left the hoophouse in tatters on the ground. Children learned the vagaries of Midwest farming in the first year. Undeterred, Smith planted an outdoor garden, and children harvested a summer crop. In August 2009, a more structurally sound hoophouse was built. This one was built on skids so it can be moved, and its height reduced to avoid catching the south wind—Kansas was named in honor of the Kansa tribe, “people of the south wind.” Children reaped their first winter crop grown from inside the hoophouse in 2010.
“I have learned that what I teach each week is determined by nature and the children,” Smith said. “I teach according to season’s time, not my time.” Smith also learned not to complete tasks in garden plots when the children aren’t around. He thought he would tidy one of the plots by cutting down the corn stalks and tying them into decorative sheaves. The children were not happy at their next visit and wanted to know what happened to their garden. “It made me feel good that the children are taking ownership of the garden,” Smith said.
In the immediate future, a five-foot wide cement path from the children’s center to the garden is to be installed, allowing access for children in wheelchairs. Outdoor seating, consisting of benches and stumps, will be placed to the south of the garden as an inviting place for children to listen to stories. Plans call for a nearby potting shed, designed by JCCC architecture students, and an outdoor garden to the west.
Long term, Smith’s goal is for the HCDC garden to serve as a model and training area for other garden-to-lunch programs. “My dream is to have every school in the state maintain a garden classroom,” Smith said. “I would like to see chefs as food directors and part of the education process so schools offer more than quick, cheap lunches.”
Closely aligned with the sustainability goals of the garden, Smith teaches the Local Food Production class for JCCC student chefs. Recently the class hosted a local food luncheon, dispelling any notion that the Midwest lacked the food products necessary for haute cuisine, with a menu of offerings such as stuffed peppers, bread from multiple local grains, fresh-cut green beans, squash ravioli, and cantaloupe right off the vine.
Eventually, Smith would like to invite Chef Ann Cooper, who pioneered the slow food movement as food director of the Berkeley Unified School District and is now director of nutrition services for Boulder Valley School District, Colorado, to speak to the community. She is the author of four books, including Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, and has won numerous awards for advocating an upgrade of school lunches for school children across America. The Berkeley lunch program began with funding from Chez Panisse Foundation, a nonprofit founded by restaurateur Alice Waters.
Learning and Fun
Smith sees the children’s garden as a way to integrate JCCC students from multiple disciplines—hospitality management, early childhood education, horticulture, the sustainable agriculture entrepreneurship certificate program, and a dietary manager certificate program. In addition to the learning potential of the garden for children, Smith says he hopes children have fun getting in the dirt, watching plants grow, and helping with the harvest. As children run into the greenhouse and greet Farmer Dave, you definitely know Smith is having fun.
The hoophouse garden was made possible by a donation from George and Patricia Semb and a grant from the Sunflower Foundation. “People have forgotten where food comes from,” Smith said of the need for the garden. “Children will learn what they consume from the garden is so different, much better than what they can get in the store. I want children to take the memory of a garden to adulthood. I want them to know they can plant a garden almost anywhere, from a rooftop to a windowsill or a backyard, spreading garden fun and good food one seed at a time.”
For more information about the children’s garden, contact David Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article by David A. Smith
Photos by Bret Gustafson
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.