Young gardeners at Fort Worth schools show off bounty to chefs

FORT WORTH -- On a day dedicated to celebrating sugary treats, students at T.A. Sims Elementary turned their focus from Halloween to their vegetable garden.

The students gave a tour of their campus garden Wednesday to a chef and the owners of a fancy downtown restaurant, explaining how third-, fourth- and fifth-graders planted seeds for green beans, Swiss chard and lettuce, and spent two months tending the crops.

Their produce, along with a bounty of vegetables from three other Fort Worth school gardens, will be harvested next week and served at a $150-per-plate dinner at Grace restaurant.

"It was a very cool experience to figure out how to plant them, to take care of them and to keep them healthy," said Neehomaa Overstreet, 10, a fifth-grader. "It was a lot of work to weed. You need to get the roots out so you had to really dig in."

Grace executive chef Blaine Staniford, 30, hadn't settled on a menu for the event, but he dropped by T.A. Sims Elementary on Wednesday to check the crops, tell the children about his job and prepare a snack for them. Grace co-owners Adam and Caroline Grace Jones -- the restaurant is named for her -- were there, too.

It's all part of a partnership between Fort Worth schools and Real School Gardens, a Fort Worth-based nonprofit that works with 92 Metroplex elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods to design and build learning gardens. Teachers receive training on using the gardens in lesson plans for science, math and other subjects, said Carolyn Crouch, the program's grant and partnership assistant.

"All of our learning gardens are just like a computer lab in the school," Crouch said. "Our learning gardens are truly academic resources. All the lesson plans are explicitly tied to the curriculum, making sure that the educational objectives are met through the outdoor education centers."

The four schools participating in the third annual Schoolyard Harvest Dinner -- D. McRae, I.M. Terrell, Meadowbrook and T.A. Sims elementary schools -- were chosen because they are closest to downtown. Their produce will be combined for the Nov. 9 dinner at Grace. The T.A. Sims students had some challenges during the growing season.

"Swiss chard is notoriously difficult to grow. They didn't have any luck getting it to germinate," said Ellen Robinson, a Real School Gardens educator. "There's one little bitty plant."

The plant beds, fashioned from brick into the letters of the school name, were invaded by neighborhood dogs that dug up plants. And humans -- the students suspect older troublemakers -- broke in and yanked some out, too, leaving them with just three green bean plants.

The lettuce fared better, and the students planted extra seeds and grew more plants. Students in other Sims Elementary classes grew broccoli, cabbage and garlic.

Real School Gardens also works with campuses in Arlington, Birdville, Dallas and Grand Prairie. But the Fort Worth partnership is the only one with the restaurant meal component, which organizers hope to expand to the other school districts, Crouch said.

At the Harvest Dinner, a group of children, community members and teachers will get to taste how the chef incorporates the produce into dishes, and tour the kitchen, Crouch said. Later, grownups will gather for a wine fundraising dinner featuring the vegetables. The $150 cost includes a $60 donation to Real School Gardens, used to fund the organization's learning gardens and educator training.

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326

Twitter: @jessamybrown