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Tracie Suter
Learn
09.30.22

Is a garden right for your school kitchen?

Schools around the world are raising their hands to share the many health benefits of growing their own fresh produce in a garden on school grounds. Whether it’s run by students, cafeteria staff or an outside community organization, there are many benefits to having a garden in your school and using the fruits (and vegetables) of your labor in your cafeteria food.  As we often say here at Vulcan, better food comes from better ingredients.

Biology and Science Education Takes Root

With a school garden, there are endless opportunities for students to be involved. Everything from understanding plant biology while planning the garden to the architecture of the garden while building it. Kids of all ages can see first-hand what it takes to go from a seed to food. Younger students can help put seeds in the ground and learn about the plant life cycle. Older students can begin to take on more complex tasks like understanding what to plant for your climate, how to keep your garden sustainable and what irrigation method to use. The lessons from how pollinators benefit the planet to nutrition can all come to life in a very real way for kids.

Here are some ideas for education topics related to school gardens:

  • Garden animals: Bees, worms and even pests all have their place.
  • Diversity in the garden: Kids can understand how diversity anywhere supports an ecosystem.
  • Plant biology: The life cycles of different vegetables and plants are unique and fascinating.
  • Garden planning: Vegetable placement and spacing, crop rotation and Plant Hardiness Zone education help students learn about their unique climate and soil.
  • Nutrition: Kids can learn about the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables how they play a key role in healthy living. Older students may even get involved with menu development.
  • Find more at https://kidsgardening.org/resource-lesson-plans/.

Necessary Nutrition

Did you know kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they’re homegrown? Apparently just having a garden at school increases their intake of vegetables at home. There’s even some evidence that exposure to the microbes in soil can help regulate neurotransmitters affecting kids’ brain’s emotional state. And that’s good news for parents, teachers, and kids.

Additionally, a school garden gives you homegrown vegetables. Food that you know was grown with care. Plus, you can plan your school menu around what vegetables will be coming from the garden, so you can serve up garden green beans as a side and school-grown lettuce with taco Tuesday.  And ensuring you have the right equipment in your kitchen means your homegrown crop will maintain its nutrients and integrity.

What to Grow

It’s important to understand your Plant Hardiness Zone to know which vegetables will grow best in your area. That said, there are certain vegetables and plants that tend to work well in most areas of the United States. Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, chard, cucumber, lettuce and winter squash are all great foods to garden and make a base for many good school lunches. Additionally, chives, basil and rosemary are hearty herbs that can garnish almost any dish. Check out the USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program to learn how to obtain assistance in starting your garden!

Financial Low-Hanging Fruit

There is an obvious benefit to growing your own school garden. After the initial investment of setting up the garden, fresh, nutritious vegetables will be ripe for the picking. In fact, the Greenhouse Foundation reports that the average elementary school saves around $1000 dollars in groceries with a garden. So while it’s not going to change the financial outcome of your school, it can certainly help!

Things to Consider

Despite the many benefits a school garden could provide, some schools may face roadblocks when beginning a garden. There is the consideration of labor restrictions on school lunch staff or faculty, but if the entire school or community is on board, the time required can usually be offset. There is also the startup cost of the garden. This can sometimes be a hurdle for schools, but there are usually community organizations willing to help if the cost is prohibitive. It’s also a good idea to check with seed suppliers. Usually, they are willing to help a school, especially if their name will get some sort of recognition.

Scratch Cooking

Cooking all or some meals from scratch gives schools surprising flexibility. It allows them to rely on other methods of food instead of relying solely on distributors that may not be able to fill all of their orders. It also converts part-time jobs into full-time positions that can be satisfying and lead to retention. Additionally, after initial investment in infrastructure, scratch cooking is cost-effective. A 2020 study of California public schools found that nutrition departments with high levels of scratch cooking spent the same total percentage of their budgets on food and labor — 87 percent — as those that did little to no scratch cooking. There is also the option of speed scratch, which means essentially, partial scratch. For example, you could make spaghetti with pre-cooked noodles and using a pre-made blend of spices to put into the otherwise scratch-made sauce. A scratch kitchen is hard work, but ultimately, if it’s right for your school, it’s worth it. Get some inspiration from our ABCs of Scratch Cooking series.

Scratch cooking.

Getting Started

There are a few things you can do to set yourself up for a successful school garden. First, enlist the support of the school. If other schools within your district have implemented a garden, start by talking to them to identify pitfalls before they happen. Next, make sure you have enough space at your school. There is no hard and fast rule for a garden size, but a large patch of green space is your best bet with partial shade and lots of sun. You can think outside the box and start small with container gardens or aeroponic/ hydroponic tower gardens.  Next, work with the school to determine which grades and classes can help with which aspects of the building and planting. Then, determine what types of plants and vegetables you want to plant. Think about your menu, your kitchen equipment, and what foods your students tend to like. Now, it’s time to get started. There are many great resources online to help you with the details. Take a look at KidsGardening.com, WholeKidsFoundation.org and the USDA for ideas, plans and steps for how to get gardening.

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