Ask a first-grader if he likes spinach, and chances are you'll get a confident yuck. Do it again after he's had an opportunity to grow spinach at school, and he'll probably change his mind. That's what Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, Ph.D., codirector of the UC Davis Center for Nutrition in Schools, in Davis, California, found when she asked elementary-school students to try six vegetables -- snow peas, spinach, and broccoli among them -- before and after they took part in a school-garden project as part of her study. "Many children who refused to try spinach before they grew it were now asking their parents to buy it to make at home," says Dr. Zidenberg-Cherr. Better still, the benefit persisted. The kids were just as apt to taste any of the veggies six months after the project ended as they were immediately following the harvest. Fortunately, it's a lot easier to plant a garden than it is to deal with feeding a picky child every night. Discover how five elementary schools across the country built gardens from the ground up. You'll come away with helpful tips and a veggie-packed, kid-approved recipe from each that you can try out at home.
Any school would envy 24th Street's setup: It has 55 fruit trees, 16 vegetable-production beds, and shaded teaching areas on a little more than an acre of land. In 2005, the school began a partnership with the nonprofit Garden School Foundation, which developed a 400-page curriculum on integrating garden activities with classwork. It will be available to other schools next month. The students were constantly surprising us with the foods they'd try from the garden," says Julia Cotts, executive director of the foundation. "They were wild about these carrot tacos. I don't think there was a kid who didn't like them."
Flemington, New Jersey
Potatoes, rosemary, and multicolored string beans are some of the foods grown in the school's two-year-old garden that have ended up on the cafeteria menu. "We have a sign that shows students which dishes use ingredients from the garden, and they are often the most popular," says school nurse Kathy Schilder. The kids also get to feast on their harvest during "spinach-salad parties" in the classroom and in cooking classes. One of the most popular recipes among first-graders: this kale fruit salad, which was developed by a parent who recently graduated from culinary school. "When we told the parents that their kids not only ate kale salad but asked for more, they couldn't believe it," says Schilder. "We sent home the recipe and our families told us they made it all summer long."
Brooklyn, New York
Science teacher Diana Marsh and parent Polly Desjarlais got the garden at this urban school off the ground seven years ago, but it wasn't until local chefs stepped in that it really took off. The staff at Seersucker restaurant works with the students to select plant varieties. Then, after harvesting, the kids go to the Seersucker kitchen to make dishes with their bounty. "The chefs taught the kids how to pickle cucumbers and peppers," says Marsh. "It really made an impression on them. They talked about it for weeks!"
Shortly after the school started a garden in 2008, a community educator from a local farm stopped by and said, "I heard you have a garden and I want to help!" Since then, Thetford has nurtured relationships with several local farms and nurseries, which donate plants, trees, mulch, and -- best of all -- expertise. Thanks to their help, the school's original seven beds have expanded to 13. The school runs gardenside taste tests, even in summer. "Last year, students picked herbs and veggies and rolled them up in rice paper," says garden coordinator and school nurse Joette Hayashigawa. "They dipped the
rolls in sauce and ate with gusto."
Kindergartners to sixth-graders attend weekly classes in the school's garden or greenhouse. Whether the kids are slurping fresh tomato sauce or measuring squash, Orca's garden coordinator blogs about it. While the local district paid for the greenhouse, the school covers the cost of the program mainly through fund-raising; last Mother's Day weekend, it netted $8,000 selling plants from nurseries and ones that students started from seeds. "Gardening class is a big reason why my daughters are healthy eaters," says parent volunteer Hannah Morgan. One of their favorite dishes: this veggie-packed soup.
Start a Garden at Your Kid's School
"Getting the garden off the ground wasn't as daunting as I thought it would be," says Kathy Schilder, who spearheaded the project at Francis A. Desmares Elementary School. Follow these steps to success.
Rally Fellow Parents
You need at least five to ten families you can count on for help -- with gardening and administrative details. Also find a science teacher, health teacher, or nurse to help. Once you have a group in place, approach the principal.
Sketch Out Your Ideas
Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the National Gardening Association offer extensive resources, including gardening how-tos and lesson plans.
Secure Seed Money
It will likely cost $500 to $2,000 to get started, depending on the land available and fencing needs. Check with state and local health departments for grants. The Home Depot, Lowe's, Jamba Juice, Annie's Homegrown, and Whole Foods offer grants.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Parents magazine.