The MOF&G Online
A Taste for Learning
By Larry Lack and Lee Ann Ward
© 2005. For information about reproducing this article, please contact the authors.
"We love being in the garden and really look forward to it. This is the funnest class we have."
"We're so lucky to have a program like this."
"Every Monday Sara S. and I take our fourth period to work in the greenhouse, teaching younger kids about the garden. The kids love the food we grow...they are always asking to have a cherry tomato or a sugar snap pea. Some even like the nasturtiums and eat those!"
These are some of many rave reviews that Troy Howard Middle School (THMS) students in Belfast, Maine, give about their school's food and garden program. Teachers, administrators, parents and community groups also are enthusiastic about a program that produces more than 4000 pounds of food a year and has transformed the school's curriculum as well as student attitudes about eating, school and life.
Fruits and vegetables from the garden and greenhouse are featured on the salad bar in the school's cafeteria for most of the school year. School-grown crops also are shared regularly with the Belfast food bank, sold at the Belfast Co-op Store, and have been served to other school and community groups.
A Peaceful Abundance of Produce
A cornucopia of produce, flowers and herbs-55 crops in all-keeps student gardeners busy with planting, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting. Working in pairs or teams, the kids giggle and carry on like normal middle schoolers, but cheerfully complete their chores and savor the results, sharing fresh produce snacks among themselves and with visitors, sniffing and touching plants in the "sensory"garden, and fortifying themselves with one of a dozen herbal teas selected and freshly brewed from the tea garden.
Some students are special fans, volunteering in the gardens and greenhouse between classes or after school. "It's so peaceful," seventh grader Janet Mathieson says. "After all the noise and crowding inside, it's sweet being out here where there's no stress." In winter the 35' x 48', mostly-solar greenhouse is a warm and cheerful refuge from the cold. Kids show up to work on garden science projects, or just to water, weed, socialize and relax.
Highlights in the school garden year include creating gourmet pizza, made almost entirely from school grown ingredients (the cheese is purchased, but the wheat for the dough is grown at the school and hand milled by the students); and, each fall, the Maine Bean Hole supper, a family extravaganza where beans are cooked slowly underground and served with a spread of other school-grown delicacies.
From March until the school year ends, students sell produce and flowers from the garden after school at a farm stand just inside the school entrance. (To strengthen their math skills, they must calculate sales and make change by hand, without a calculator.)
Although the crops grown in the garden and greenhouse at THMS are not certified organic, the growing methods used at the school are strictly organic. No chemicals are used, and fertility is maintained with compost made from cafeteria and garden wastes. Insect pests are managed with sticky traps, lady bugs and tiny Encarsia formosa wasps that students distribute and monitor; and a huge tobacco plant in the greenhouse attracts scale insects and aphids that would otherwise attack the stems and leaves of vegetables and flowering plants.
Project Development and Integration
The Midcoast organic community and MOFGA have helped nurture the THMS garden project since its inception four years ago. Produce grown by the students and displayed at the Common Ground Fair has won numerous blue ribbons. Students from the garden project interview produce vendors at the Fair and use information gleaned from them to create and improve the school's evolving business plan for marketing its produce. Organic dairy farmer Linda Hartkopf, a half-time staffer for the garden project, links it with the school's social studies curriculum through quizzes, games, field trips and special projects. This summer the school hopes to have a MOFGA apprentice to work at the gardens, which until now have been maintained over the summer by student and parent volunteers and project staff.
Articles about the project and related topics are published in The Weekly Worm, a fact-filled but whimsical student publication. Art classes draw and paint garden plants and vegetables, and students illustrate the seed packets that are sold by the school's seed company.
As part of the pizza project, teams of students studying business create plans for hypothetical pizzerias, calculating their costs and estimating sales and profits. Students also write letters to solicit in-kind and financial support for the project.
Science classes measure sugar levels in plant foliage and fine-tune fertilizer applications accordingly, while those studying forestry and native plants are creating a nature trail in the woods and wetlands behind the school.
Computer classes use spreadsheets to track school harvests, distribution and marketing from year to year. In 2004 students in a media class produced an amazingly professional, 45-minute DVD portrait of the garden project, featuring student interviews and a soundtrack of garden songs. Maine history classes study the crops of early settlers, select and grow Maine "heritage" fruits and vegetables and report about who brought them to Maine and where they were first grown.
The successful project has brought media attention and kudos to the school, inspiring interest in the growing network of Maine school gardens, which now number over eighty.
White and Tanguay: Talented, Award-Winning Staffers
The two staffers who developed and oversee the project, now in its fourth year, have been critical to its success. Agriculture Program Coordinator Don White, a former special ed teacher, was raised on a Vassalboro farm. His dry sense of humor, unflappable good nature and playful enjoyment of both plants and kids are infectious and put even the most challenged and difficult students at ease. White is convinced that all students gain valuable academic skills and build self esteem from the experiential learning offered by the garden project.
"Growing and preparing food they enjoy and share with others," he says , "really gives them a sense of accomplishment, and you can see how this opens them up."
Steve Tanguay, the social studies teacher who steers the academic side of the project, also gets high marks from students, some of whom have requested placement in his garden-centered homeroom. Tanguay's social studies classes explore how food systems and natural resources shape the character of societies. His class work reinforces the garden project's "hands on" approach with assignments such as making paper from watermelon rinds.
The small office that White and Tanguay share is constantly crowded with students asking questions and having fun with the pair of teachers, whose initiation and dedicated leadership of the garden project earned them a national Excellence in Teaching Agriculture Award in 2004 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Judging from what the students say, the garden project is altering their attitudes about food and steering some of them toward more nutritious diets. Students we met during our two visits to the school told us they now love fresh fruits and vegetables that they seldom ate before, and that they are avoiding or cutting down on junk food. Several said they are helping more with family gardens or have started or plan to start gardens of their own, and some mentioned that they are considering plant- or food-related careers.
The mission statement of the Troy Howard Middle School garden project says its goal is "to grow empowered, academically successful young people." The delicious, school-grown foods we sampled, the scale model greenhouses and garden-inspired artwork we saw, and the funny and thoughtful articles we read in The Weekly Worm suggest that this goal is being met. But more than anything else, the caring relationships and positive team spirit that Steve Tanguay and Don White have nurtured around growing, preparing, and sharing food may be the most important key to the learning that is so manifestly blooming and growing at this big middle school. The Troy Howard Middle School garden project is an amazing and exuberant community laboratory of youthful experimentation in food for thought, food for the soul.
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