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Monday, March 14, 2011

How Schools Have Changed!

This is the sign on the wall in the Teaching Lab.
Jim Long
The Ozarks Herbalist
for The Ozarks Mountaineer

How Schools Have Changed!

I never thought of myself as an antique. Nor have I felt like I grew up in the old days like my parents and grandparents once talked about. But I have come to realize I am from a distant age, from a time when, as my Granddad said, “things were different.”

For the first three years of my schooling I attended a one room school. We had wooden school desks, an old cork bulletin board and a coat room with a shelf where everyone kept their lunch buckets. In the coat room was an enamel bucket of water and a dipper. At recess one of the seventh or eighth graders would pump a fresh bucket of water from the old iron pump in the school yard and everyone would have a drink, all from the same dipper.

Schools have changed and I have no complaints. I’m grateful for my fond childhood memories, and my experiences were humbling, but I would not wish such a school upon children today. Today’s kids have a vast universe of opportunities beyond our wildest dreams in the old days.
Front of the Jonesboro school.

Recently I was asked to do some consulting for a grade school in Jonesboro, Arkansas to establish an herb garden at the school. In past years I’ve visited several school garden projects in other states including ones in Philadelphia, San Antonio, Cincinnati and last summer one in Dallas (If you follow my garden blog, you likely have read of some of the schools already). Each one was slightly different, but all focused on teaching children where their food comes, including utilizing what they grow into the school lunch programs.
This is the outdoor demonstration area with some of the smaller garden beds in the background.

This is part of a much larger movement in America to encourage people to eat better. Gone (or at least going) are the days when school lunches are nothing but a slice of pizza and a plate full of frozen, greasy, heated up ‘tater tots. This movement began with the food activist, Alice Waters, who is the proprietress of the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in California, and Carlo Petrini the founder of the Slow Food movement in Italy, which he established in 1986. Both of those people believe food should be the freshest and most healthy, grown from local sources. That includes food grown without pesticides or growth hormones, and that the most vulnerable people, meaning children and the elderly, should have access to those healthy foods.

Sow Foods is not simply a two-country movement, either. I was a delegate and lecturer at the first International Slow Foods Conference in Turin, Italy in 2005 and was astounded and encouraged to find five thousand attendees representing one hundred thirty countries. This is an international movement to encourage local, healthy foods. It includes an emphasis on using local food producers first, meaning supporting local farmers over imported foods. Since that time, Slow Foods groups have grown up all over the United States and in many other countries.
One of the enclosed courtyards. Notice the little greenhouse in the back and the raised vegetable beds.

School adminstrators have come to realize the connection between what children eat, and the roly-poly creatures they often become when fed primarily high fat, high sugar foods. To address that, school gardens offer opportunities to not only eat better, but to learn why an actual potato is healthier than a greasy, deep-fried french fry. Or why food, fresh from the garden has more vitamins and minerals and how it simply tastes better.

The Health, Wellness and Environmental magnate school in the Jonesboro, Arkansas school system is an exceptional school. Melinda Smith is the Program Coordinator who writes grants, helps with curricula, teaches classes and has established and oversees the kids’ garden project. She has a staff of enthusiastic, very talented teachers who work with her and who use the gardens to teach a variety of subjects and lessons.
Even the school lunchroom is upbeat and cheery.

The gardens were established only two years ago but in that short time they have utilized two existing enclosed courtyards in which they have built raised beds, an outdoor workshop with tables for demonstrations and an indoor kitchen teaching lab that is more impressive than many small restaurant kitchens.

They have a small greenhouse where the children, grades one through six, learn about starting seed, transplanting, potting and growing plants for their garden. In the spring of the year they have an annual plant sale with the proceeds going back into the garden. Equally as important are the classes taught in the kitchen where the children learn how to clean, prepare and cook the produce they grow.
The gardens are great for teaching geometry, math, science and reading.

Does this mean the school has given up classes in reading, writing and arithmetic? Absolutely not! Science classes include things like soil fertility, water and air quality, how to measure length and depth of the beds, all involving math, science and reading skills. Each class teaches the basics and includes information about the environment along with information about the world at large in the classes.
Melinda Smith, Project Coordinator.

Even though Jonesboro is a community with many forward thinking people, the school has had to combat ongoing questions from people who don’t quite understand yet the reasons for the unusual curriculum. Questions like, “What’s wrong with instant potatoes and canned green beans and pizza for lunch every day?” Or, “Why do children need to know where their food comes from, we’ve got Wal-Mart!” is a constant challenge.
This is part of the Teaching Lab and kitchen.

When you look at this from the perspective of an international movement, the school kids’ gardens begin to make sense. I have been hosting summer garden interns at my farm for the past fifteen years, usually men or women in their twenties to early thirties and these are the folks who are knee-deep in the compost and mulch of this healthy foods movement. It is the college-age people and the young married people who are raising families who care about organic produce, about eating food grown in their neighborhood instead of shipped from a third-world country. They are the ones who believe food is what makes our bodies work, and that if you want a child to grow up healthier than our current generation, the way to do that is to teach them how to choose healthy food and know where it comes from.
The kids learn about chickens and eggs and how to be responsible for animals. Math and science classes include the chickens (and rabbits) in class lessons.

If a disaster struck, like widespread drought, or the price of oil rose so high international shipping was affected, if social upheaval or disastrous earthquakes caused food shortages, wouldn’t it be an advantage if there was a generation of young people who know how to grow food? Instead of depending upon stores for food, earlier generations grew their own, saving money in the process as well as supporting themselves with fresh, healthy food.
The kids learn about why you wash vegetables, lessons about bacteria, as well as what you do to vegetable before it's ready to be eaten.

Some years ago I hosted three generations of one family from New Jersey who toured my garden. I had a large bed of mixed lettuces growing in one area and the grandmother of the group asked me, “What is that?” pointing toward the salad greens. I mistakenly thought she was pointing to something I hadn’t yet seen, a bug, a bird something hidden in the raised bed. She asked me again and I realized she meant the rows of lettuce. It’s lettuce, I told her.

“So do you eat it like the lettuce from the grocery store?” she asked.

I was dumbstruck and could only nod yes, mystified at how you could reach her age and not understand that anyone could grow their own salad greens. I’m sure she would never see the value of knowing where food comes from but thankfully, younger generations do.
The Health, Wellness and Nutrition magnet school also teaches kids about recycling. This 5 ft. tall "robot" is made completely from plastic jugs and bottles and was made by one of the 4th or 5th graders.

The school garden project in Jonesboro includes a tiny chicken house where the kids learn about eggs and caring for animals. There are two formerly homeless domestic rabbits that someone donated to the school, named Oreo and Leon who live in one of the enclosed courtyards.
There are some really amazing new books available for teaching math, science and reading schools through the use of gardens.

Because kids might not quite grasp the concept of an “herb garden” we have created a “pizza garden” which includes all of the herbs and vegetables you might put on a pizza, including oregano, marjoram, onions, rosemary, garlic, basil, tomatoes and summer squash.

New this year, as well, is a “salad bar” garden, complete with a sign, where the children are growing a variety of lettuces, spinach, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, green onions and radishes. Those vegetables will go into the classroom teaching lab and be washed and prepared and the children will eat them, probably with a well-made, fresh pizza they have made, as well.
Oreo and Leon are the two resident rabbits who live in one of the courtyard gardens.

Renee Shepherd, who is owner of Renee’s Garden Seed in California, has a very generous project this year for nonprofit organizations anywhere in the U.S. The Jonesboro school is participating in the project (as is my own company, Long Creek Herbs). Renee assigns a coupon code for each nonprofit organization that participates and anyone who orders seed from Renees Garden Seed and uses the coupon code, will be making a donation to that garden. That means if you go to the school’s garden blog you can get the coupon code, click on the link to and order packets of seed (anytime until the end of this year). At the end of the year, Renee tallies how many dollars worth of seed has been ordered using that coupon code, and she donates 25% of that money back to the garden project.

If you go to my website,, and click on the “Buy Seed, Help Children” button on my home page, it will take you to a page with a complete explanation of the project, and you will see the coupon code (FR556A). Then go to and order seed using that coupon code, and you will be making a contribution to the school garden project. I have used Renee’s seed collections for many years and always appreciate the varieties and selections she offers.
The science lab includes birds, lizards, snakes and lots more. The classroom is exciting and encourages the kids to learn and explore. Think how much more exciting and fun homework and classwork, too, would have been when we were kids if we'd had classrooms and teachers like these!

I’m very happy at the ways schools are changing. When I visit the Jonesboro Health, Wellness and Environmental school, I am completely encouraged and inspired. It makes me want to go back to school and start all over! Those kids will never know a water bucket and a communal water dipper, thank goodness, but what they will have instead, are excellent skills in math, science and reading that will guide them throughout their lives. They have opportunities to go forward with their lives with more information and opportunities than many of us had at their age, with a better understanding of food and how it affects their health than their parents had.

You can follow my gardening adventures and my visits to other gardens at To follow this unique kids’ garden project at the Jonesboro school: I think you will be as pleased for these kids and their dedicated teachers as I am.

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