Califonia Bountiful

Seeds of learning

Sept./Oct. 2007 California Country magazine

School gardens help students get in touch with their food.

School gardens help students get in touch with their food

Students at Los Cerritos Elementary School nurture plants and, in turn, are fed knowledge that can help them for a lifetime.

Broccoli, bok choy and beets. In the eyes and taste buds of the average grade-schooler, what chance do they have against a fast-food burger, corn dog or candy bar?

You might be surprised to learn that students in one of California's most urban areas can't get enough fresh produce, including the bounty of fruits, vegetables and herbs from their own garden.

At Los Cerritos Elementary in Long Beach, Los Angeles County, a school garden feeds the minds and bodies of the student population. This living, giving resource has continually surprised educators about how hungry youngsters are to learn that their food wasn't made in a grocery store--it came from a farm.

"Eating healthy and knowing where food is grown are so fundamental," said Dianne Swanson, the second-grade teacher who started the garden. "We're so disconnected from that at this point in history. I think just having an idea of where your food comes from and having an idea of what it took to get it to your plate is really an important thing for everybody to know. We take it for granted that it will be in the stores. We all have to have a deeper knowledge, especially here in California."

Second-grade teacher Dianne Swanson started the school garden in 2000.

Swanson put her skills as a master gardener to good use and started the school garden in 2000. What began as four raised beds used by two teachers, the Urban Farmyard has since expanded to 22 raised beds and nearly 5,000 square feet, used by every teacher and student on campus. Educators hope it's also a model for getting a garden in every school in California.

For her work, Swanson has won state and national honors for incorporating agriculture into her classroom, including the National Agriculture in the Classroom's Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture award. She has also garnered widespread accolades.

"I've seen the miracle of watching a kid who never wanted to get their hands dirty suddenly begin to work the soil," said A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, who has visited the garden several times. "I've watched children change through these garden programs. If a child grows a vegetable or something edible, takes care of it and harvests it, you've got them hooked forever."

Most impressive to Swanson and her colleagues is how valuable--and versatile--the garden is as a teaching tool.

"You can tie anything you want to teach to the garden," Swanson said. "It's easy to incorporate topics including life science because of the connection with the earth, and math because of the measurements students can take. Reading is also an easy fit because they can read stories about gardens and then write about them. They can do social studies with the crops of the Native Americans or what the settlers grew. Then you can tie it to character education because they are cooperating and learning together to keep the garden alive. The list just goes on and on and on."

It's obvious that the students enjoy the lessons the school garden provides. While you'll still see a bit of tetherball and horseplay during recess, many of the children make a beeline for the garden to water their plants, pick produce, dig for earthworms or hunt for lizards.

"We have a big and beautiful garden," beamed second-grader Cydni Lewis. "We have lots of fruits and vegetables that are healthy for us and flowers that we can give to our lovely teachers. I like asparagus and strawberries the best!"

Hardly an hour of the school day goes by when there isn't a gaggle of youngsters laughing, learning and getting in touch with the earth in their special garden.

Student gardening activities include planting, watering, harvesting and--the favorite of many of the children--preparing and eating the literal fruits and vegetables of their labor.

The students have created and gobbled up dishes that range from chicken noodle soup to Asian vegetable stir-fry with tofu. Some of the meals are made in a solar cooker.

"Occasionally one of the students is leery of some of the garden produce, but when they see their friends eating it, they give it a try," Swanson said. "They love to eat healthy foods. They eat turnips. They eat kale. They eat things that their parents thought they would never eat."

Instilling healthy eating habits in children is no easy trick, as recent California Department of Public Health figures indicate only one-fifth of youth in the state ages 9 to 11 eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

The garden has also fostered awareness of the need to feed others. Los Cerritos students donate produce to a local food bank and invite the community to visit and support this growing endeavor.

"You'd think that people would teach you about the garden, but it's actually the garden that teaches you," said fifth-grader Nicole Araujo. "I also like how there's food and plants--the vegetables, fruits and flowers. It's really cool!"

Just like the farm fields it strives to emulate, the Los Cerritos garden is marvelously diverse. Bordered by flowers and fruit trees, thriving crops such as herbs, artichokes, carrots, celery, Swiss chard, spinach, kohlrabi and cabbage grow between manicured paths of decomposed granite. A peace pole stating "May Peace Prevail on Earth" is also in the garden, which is the site of an annual celebration in September recognizing the United Nations International Day of Peace.

The garden includes a peace pole, which is part of an effort to encourage peace throughout the world.

A bright, functional red barn houses tools, while an adjacent structure houses chickens, ducks, rabbits, a rooster and guinea fowl that thrive on the loving attention the student body provides. There's also a composting area to recycle products and enhance the soil.

An essential part of the success of the Urban Farmyard involves fundraising and volunteerism, including several parents who have provided free labor and supervision for years.

"I just believe so much in all of the learning that can take place when kids are actually doing things," said Karin Wasinger, who has a son at the school and has volunteered in the garden for three years. "If they can get their hands on it, they'll acquire that knowledge without even noticing that they're learning."

"It makes me feel great," said Leslie Elzinga, who has two children at the school and has volunteered for more than five years. "When my kids are older, I think that they and all of the children will remember their time in the school garden. This is the best thing I could be doing right now with my kids and all of the other kids that go here."

In addition to the parent volunteers, the Los Angeles County Farm Bureau has helped publicize the garden, the University of California Cooperative Extension has donated seeds, and a nursery in nearby Lakewood has provided discounted plants.

Swanson acknowledged that teaching second-graders and working to promote their garden is well beyond a nine-to-five job, but she's quick to add that the results will pay dividends for a long time.

"I think the experiences that you have when you're young stick with you," she said. "I see my students telling other kids not to smash the spiders or hurt the worms. I also hear that they're going home and telling their parents what they've eaten and wanting to do it at their home, too.

"There's a quote that I've read that you take care of what you know," Swanson said. "If they know about good nutrition and how to care for the Earth, they are much more apt to act on that knowledge instead of treating it as an abstract concept."

School Gardens 1A

It's now easier than ever to start your own school garden. Here's how:

  • Gain the support of your school administrators.
  • Create a support network of other teachers, staff, parents and community volunteers.
  • Identify goals for the garden, including tying in what you plant with your curriculum.
  • Design a practical, functional and fun garden so it will pay off handsomely down the road.
  • Make a list of materials and supplies needed, to create a realistic budget.
  • Obtain supplies and funds, which can help build a solid support network. Many schools achieve this through donations, grants and fundraising projects.
  • Plant the garden, which can provide an exciting experience for students and offer a glimpse at what the future holds. It's important to factor in what it takes to sustain the garden, including caring for it on weekends and when class isn't in session.

Teachers can receive a free book, "Gardens for Learning," and find out more by logging on to the California School Garden Network at

For free resources on how to incorporate the story of food and farms into your classroom or home, visit the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom at

Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at

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