Culinary gardens help Fort Worth students gain hands-on lessons

Posted Monday, Oct. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
If you go The Schoolyard Harvest Dinner is from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at Grace Restaurant, 777 Main St., Fort Worth. Tickets: $150

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Angelica Terrones is the campus expert on basil plants at Meadowbrook Elementary School.

Angelica, 11, can offer a quick lesson on the different types of basil and how to determine whether the culinary herb is stressed. (Hint: Look for yellow leaves.)

Classmate Brithney Munoz specializes in peach trees, while Aurora Hernandez is all about broccoli. With some help from the REAL School Gardens, the fifth-graders are helping create a thriving garden at Meadowbrook, one of about 100 schools in North Texas that participate in the program.

“Oh my gosh, it is so fun,” Hernandez, 10, said. “I really like it.”

Gardening is believed to help students on a number of academic fronts, educators said. When they work the soil, they also study disciplines including math, science and social studies. They also learn altruism when the crops they harvest are donated to food pantries and other charities.

“Schools are hungry to find ways to engage children in learning,” said Jeanne McCarty, executive director of Real School Gardens in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit with local ties that uses gardening to promote respect for nature while growing student success.

“Our learning gardens become one of their important tools to do that,” McCarty said.

Expert gardeners work with teachers and students at schools across North Texas, including 52 in the Fort Worth, Birdville and Arlington school districts, said Sarah Geer, director of foundation and individual relations for Real School Gardens.

Real School Gardens wants to keep growing.

It plans to plant gardens at 10 new schools — eight in Dallas, one in Fort Worth and one in Grand Prairie. The nonprofit is also working to establish similar gardens in the Washington, D.C., area by fall 2014.

Outdoor learning spaces

The program’s early roots are tied to philanthropist Richard Rainwater and his friend Suzy Peacock, who searched for ways to help urban students in Fort Worth.

The first gardens with ties to the Real Garden Schools program were in Fort Worth, where Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center and Morningside Elementary consider the gardens a hands-on tool when teaching about learning and giving.

For example, about two years ago fourth-graders at Alice Carlson harvested 145 pounds of potatoes and 30 pounds of onions that were given to a local pantry. At Morningside, students have cooked their school-grown vegetables and sold plants from a campus greenhouse.

Early school gardens were built in 1995-2003 with funding from the Rainwater Foundation, McCarty said.

Real School Gardens officially became a nonprofit in 2007, McCarty said.

Schools apply with the organization for selection in a three-year garden startup program. After the three years, the nonprofit works with schools to continue to offer “evergreen support,” McCarty said.

“We have created a program that helps make learning gardens a central part of a school campus,” she said.

As flowers, herbs and mustard greens flourish in Real School Gardens, so have students. The program leaders said it has seen 15 percent increases in test scores at partner schools.

Kaynee Correoso, principal at Holiday Heights Elementary in North Richland Hills, said students from kindergarten through fifth grade learn in the garden there.

Students plant fruits and vegetables appropriate for each season. They sharpen measuring skills by documenting how tall plants grow. In an outdoor classroom complete with tree stumps that serve as chairs, youngsters discuss weather and the environment.

“They talk about what they see outside,” Correoso said. “It’s so much more powerful than just sitting in the classroom.”

The gardening experience — what kid doesn’t like to dig up dirt? — defines hands-on, educators say.

“They get to have close-up encounters with bees, caterpillars and snakes,” Meadowbrook Principal Terri McGuire said.

Brithney, 11, researched peaches, which ripen on the Meadowbrook campus in the late spring and summer. Peaches symbolize good luck in some cultures, she said, noting that they are “yummy” too.

“Did you know they are related to almonds?” Munoz asked with a smile.

From seed to table

Brithney and her school friends recently received a culinary lesson that featured a pinch of philanthropy.

Since produce from the Meadowbrook garden will be used for the annual Schoolyard Harvest Dinner at Grace restaurant in November, students receive a sneak peek at the menu.

The Nov. 7 dinner is a fundraiser for Real School Gardens, and $60 of the $150 ticket will go directly to the nonprofit.

Last week, students tasted carrots, celery, snow peas and beets, which were accompanied by a specially made ranch-style dip created by Grace Executive Chef Blaine Staniford.

“I think it’s really awesome,” said Hernandez, 10.

Staniford and Grace owners Adam and Carolin Jones visited Meadowbrook, D. McRae, T.A. Sims and I.M. Terrell elementary schools.

Staniford and the Joneses toured school gardens, answered questions about culinary arts and even gave autographs to youngsters who have added “chef” to their lists of potential future jobs.

“It’s all part of what we do helping the community,” Adam Jones said.

Several students who participated in the culinary sampling will also attend the Schoolyard Harvest Dinner, said Ellen Robinson, program director for Real School Gardens.

“The students actually get to attend the restaurant that night,” Robinson said. “It’s a really very special opportunity for them. It’s really a seed-to-table experience because they are the ones who planted it and they are the ones who sit at the table and who eat the produce.”

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675 Twitter: @dianeasmith1

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