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Natural Awakenings South Jersey

A Garden Grows at Elizabeth Haddon Elementary School

Sep 01, 2011 12:44PM ● By By Linda Sechrist

In the popular movie, Field of Dreams, novice farmer Ray Kinsella walks through his cornfield, hears a voice that whispers “If you build it they will come”, and sees an imaginary baseball field. Today, parents who walk onto the property at Elizabeth Haddon Elementary School will see a real garden and should hear the message, “If they grow it, they will eat it.” The garden of seven raised beds and two in-ground butterfly beds, is now in its second year. Created by a team of volunteer teachers and parents, the garden was planted and maintained by classes of enthusiastic students, who ate their harvests in the school cafeteria during special monthly salad bars and tastings prepared by Nutri-Serve Food Management’s Haddonfield School District Food Director, Dan Witkowski.

It Took a Village

Responsible for the school food service programs at 79 public and private schools districts in Central and Southern New Jersey, Nutri-Serve is collaborating with the National Farm to School Network and piloting the Haddon Garden Project as a model for future programs. Connecting schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, Farm to School works to improve student nutrition, provides agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supports local and regional farmers.

Humble Beginnings

The garden project began when seven parents, interested in more nutritional lunches for their children, gathered around a dining room table at the home of Shani Nuckols in October 2010. Nuckols, the incoming PTA president with two sons who are students, was enthusiastic about the project before it became a reality. “My husband is an avid gardener and my children enjoy helping,” says Nuckols.

Assessing strengths and weaknesses before determining leadership and forming committees was essential not only because there was a significant amount of work to be done but also because strategy and structure were seriously needed for the collaboration with Nutri-Serve and the school principal. “We needed to work together to determine teacher/student involvement in the garden and if produce could be integrated into the lunch program, initially in the form of a salad bar,” advises Nuckols, whose small group easily overcame one of its biggest challenges: cafeteria food is prepared elsewhere and delivered because the school doesn’t have a kitchen.

From the Soil Up

From the outset the gardens were meant to be an enhancement of a teacher’s curriculum and a student’s classroom learning experience rather than the burden of one more thing to cram into a school year. Lynn Raus’ career as a landscape architect made her the perfect candidate for selecting the plants and garden designing as well as organizing the building of garden beds and volunteers who would water, weed and harvest.

Raus’ children weren’t the only three reasons that she was enthusiastic about the project. “I’ve designed and worked on landscapes for arboretums, public parks and streetscapes where aesthetics were as important as environmental planning, water conservation, native plants, and sustainability, so I was excited to put my skills to good use in a new way and learn about vegetable gardening,” says Raus. Her valuable hands-on experience yielded several lessons not only about vegetable plants, planting schedules, and harvest times but also about community involvement and donor generosity.

Thanks to the Volunteers

For the initial garden kick-off celebration, an abundance of enthusiastic students volunteered. The catch was that they had to bring their parents with them. When the event was rained out, Raus found herself inundated with families who were anxious to reschedule and make sure that they got a turn to help. The great response led to each school class splitting watering duties and taking turns once a week to hydrate plants.

Welcomed Ideas

Donna Gramigna had a very special interest in the success of the garden. With two children, who are food allergic and are unable to eat most of the processed foods included in school lunches, Gramigna was assigned the task of working with Nutri-Serve. “Where I anticipated a challenge, I found instead that our ideas were welcomed,” enthuses Gramigna.

Gratitude for Donors and Community Involvement

Nuckols, Raus, and Gramigna are overwhelmed with gratitude for the phenomenal community cooperation and involvement. “It was touching to see such community effort not just from the teachers, students, and their families but also the outpouring from retailers and contractors beyond the schoolyard,” says Gramigna. Nurseries contributed plants, a local contractor volunteered to build raised beds and another contractor installed a pump for a future drip irrigation system.

Dreams for the Future

Raus can’t help dreaming bigger for coming years. “I would love to increase the size of the gardens and include other plants such as blueberries, which are native to the area and would be great addition to other areas on the school grounds not only for their tasty fruit, but also for their bright fall colors,” says Raus. Like the others, she would like to see the teachers and children using the gardens more often as part of their curriculum.

Planting Seeds for the Future

“We’ve seen that children love to eat what they grow and now we’re hoping that because they’ve used all their senses in the garden they will remember what they’ve touched. Raus isn’t just referring to the childhood memories created, she’s also hoping that the idea of gardening and a healthy diet will be carried into adult years and repeated for generations to come.

From several outcomes, it is apparent that the seeds of hope have already taken root. A group of girls from the school created a beautiful thank you card for the garden and departing fifth graders raised funds for a garden bench. “It’s beyond what we ever hoped to accomplish in such a short time,” says Nuckols. 

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