If you don’t have an elementary aged child in Athens county, you might not be familiar with the school gardening program for first graders, called Sprouts. However, this program, now in its fourth year, engages with hundreds of children in the county annually and helps operate the school gardens at East Elementary and Morrison-Gordon Elementary in the Athens City School District and Amesville Elementary in the Federal Hocking Local School District.
Organized by the nonprofit Community Food Initiatives (CFI), whose mission is to foster communities where everyone has equitable access to healthy, local food, the Sprouts Garden Program aims to reach this goal by increasing elementary-aged children’s understanding of how food is grown. The students learn hands-on lessons about sustainable agriculture, and are given access to locally grown produce, which they have the opportunity to sample at school and then bring home.
The health benefits of a program like this one are numerous. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “studies have shown that simply having contact with dirt, whether it’s through gardening, digging holes, or making pies out of mud, can significantly improve a child’s mood and reduce anxiety and stress.” And, early exposure to the dirt can actually improve good bacteria and microbes, improving a developing immune system, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Though for the kids, they simply see Sprouts as a “fun time to do cool things in the garden with friends,”according to one first grader at East Elementary School in Athens.
Molly Gassaway, CFI’s Director of Garden Programs, believes there are short-term and long-term benefits of her program.
“There are lots of students that we work with that might have a hard time in a traditional classroom setting, and when they come outside to the garden, they really just light up. They are allowed to get dirty and learn all about bugs and plants and all the great things that happen outdoors that you don’t get to experience inside a traditional classroom setting. And so to get the kids out there experiencing that and also building that lifelong love for gardening has been amazing,” she said.
The activities and curriculum for Sprouts vary from month to month, but always follow the seasons. Each lesson begins with instruction inside the classroom before heading out into the garden.
Most recently the students “put the gardens to bed,” where they cut down dead plants, collected seeds to plant in the spring, and spread compost to prepare for the upcoming spring growing season. Called the “Compost Kitchen,” Gassaway said this activity was a particular favorite with her kids.
“We brought all sorts of different ingredients that the kids got to mix together, buffet-style. They wore chef hats and aprons, and they used real whisks and spoons and pots and pans, and they stirred their ingredients together to feed the worms in our garden beds. So they’re choosing from ingredients like coffee grounds, shredded newspaper, sawdust and food scraps, cutting everything up really small, and stirring all those yummy gross things together to make a compost stew to feed our worm friends and thus our soil,” she said.
Gassaway said her own love of gardening blossomed once she had her two children and was able to see them witness, first-hand, the life cycle of plants. Now she’s educating not only her own children, and local first graders in these hands-on lessons, but also helping to train the next generation of leaders through the COMcorps Program, at the Heritage College of Medicine at Ohio University.
COMcorps members serve a 10.5 or 11.5 month term, volunteering 1700 hours of direct service to the community. The major focuses of the program through OHIO include food insecurity, nutrition education and emotional support for individuals living with chronic stress.
According to Lucy Peloso, CFI’s COMcorps member and Garden Education Coordinator, “It’s been a really life-giving experience so far. In a literal sense, we are planting seeds and tending to the garden where so much growth happens. And in a deeper sense, we are helping the students learn about where their food comes from, how things grow, how to take care of nature, and how to take care of each other. It’s been awesome to see the joy, curiosity, and excitement the kids have each time we visit their classrooms and the garden. The garden is a place where everyone can use their gifts and be successful, so it’s amazing to see the students thrive there. One of my favorite memories is when a student said that they love garden time more than recess because ‘we always get to do fun things in the garden!’”
Gassaway says members like Peloso are integral to the success of Sprouts. “We are a small nonprofit, so we rely heavily on our partnerships throughout the community. Our lessons are facilitated by CFI staff, with help from our COMcorps members and other volunteers. We all are working together to bring garden education to the students, and it’s really great to see how dedicated they are to our community,” she said.
To learn more about about CFI and Sprouts, visit: https://communityfoodinitiatives.org/programs/school-gardens.html
Community Update and photos by ACEnet Multimedia Creator, Delia Palmisano