Let’s Get Cooking…with Molly and Her Student Gardeners!

April 3, 2009  • 

When teacher Molly Reed discovered that her students thought their vegetables were grown at the grocery store, she realized that they needed to learn where their food came from. Starting with a chicken coop and some creative ideas, her classroom garden has grown into a community vegetable garden, cooking sessions that use the eggs and fresh produce that they grow and even a produce stand, where the kids sell the fruits and veggies they’ve grown themselves. After she appeared on the Rachael Ray show, the Yum-o! team checked in with Molly and her students to learn more.

What gave you the idea to build the garden and the chicken coop?
With our small class garden last year, students were a part of the planting process, chose where to place plants and herbs and, as the edibles grew, the students sampled. When visitors would come to the classroom, we always had a willing tour guide in the class to show and teach our guests about what we were growing. I never thought I would hear a 7-year-old student say, "I love chard," or another tell me that they "prefer kale over greens." This was quite a change from the sugar and hot Cheeto breakfast/lunches I saw in the beginning of the year. This experience transformed our classroom, as students were eager to water the plants or check for tomato horn worm invasions! We culminated our year with a harvest celebration and a stir-fry of the veggies and tofu, which was many students’ first experience with tofu. Kids started making better choices when it came to what they were eating – and we all know we strive for our kids to make good choices!

This all inspired me to write a grant last January to create a larger edible garden that could feed the needs of our students. I received the grant this summer and worked with the local community food bank to fully integrate the surrounding community in its goal for sustainability. In the grant, I stated the desire to integrate the edible garden into our afterschool program, have community potlucks, create our own school farmers’ market and, most importantly, give our students the tools to keep the earth growing and be in charge of it. The addition of the chicken coop helps students understand the food cycle, as they collect the eggs, which were produced by hens fed by the yummy vegetables from our garden that we feed them.

Was it difficult to get the grant?
This was only the second grant that I’d written, and I felt it was a very doable process. I was one of ten schools that received the grant out of approximately 30-40 entries. I have written two other garden grants to help continue with the garden expenses, but we did not receive them. We rely on in-kind donations from our families, but we are mostly self-sustained through the weekly farm stand proceeds.

How do you maintain the garden in the summer when school is out?

This will be the first summer the garden has seen. I will be teaching a math and gardening summer school class during the month of June, and for July and August we are looking to partner with the University of Arizona to write a grant that would enable us to work with local homeless families during school vacation and summer periods to provide them work in maintaining the garden as well as receiving harvested veggies.

Do you find that even pickier eaters are into the veggies and trying new things?
Even my pickiest eaters will at least try the veggies grown in the garden because they take pride in the ownership of the garden. They may not like it after they try it, but we are so proud that they took a “veggie risk” and encourage them to keep on trying.

What is the most popular veggie on the lot?

The students love the carrots the best, with broccoli being a close second. They love the crunchiness of them. Students also nibble on different lettuces, but many find arugula too strong.

What has been the easiest food to grow and what would you recommend that a new gardener might try?
Oh, well, I have to say that I will never purchase lettuce again, because it is by far the easiest to grow, at least here in Arizona! Herbs are a nice way to start with gardening because many can be grown in pots. Snow peas and broccoli grow well during their season, too.

Do you have any tips for other teachers who might want to do something like this?

One of the most important lessons I have learned from this entire experience is the crucial key to collaborate with those around you, especially parents and other teachers. Many people wanted to become involved in the establishment of the garden, and the best thing for any teacher taking on the creation of the garden is to be organized with specific jobs for everyone to take part in!

We wanted to hear from the kids about their experience, so we asked them a few questions, too!

What’s the best part of having this garden?
Many students said that the best part of the garden is the chickens, because they are fun to play with and they lay eggs. Eli said, "The best part of having a garden is that we get to sell veggies and eggs" while Sophie chimed in, "My favorite part of the garden is planting seeds." Pilar added, "The best part is learning how things grow and how to help use the garden and help the food bank all at the same time," a sentiment Chet and Edith echoed when they mentioned, "The best thing about having this garden is that we are feeding people, it is homemade and fresh from the garden and we work hard for it" and that "the best part of the garden is that we share our vegetables."

What is your favorite veggie?

Sophie, Chet and Edith are all carrot fans, explaining, "My favorite veggie is a carrot because they are sweet" and "My favorite vegetable is a carrot because they are crunchy and when you bite into it it is juicy" and "My favorite veggie is a carrot because they make you strong, and I want to be strong." Pilar added, "I like all veggies because they are good for you and when you are sick they help you feel better."

What is your favorite recipe? Can you share it with us?

Pilar shared, "My favorite recipe is salad because it has a lot of healthy things in it, and I like them," while Chet shared that his favorite veggie recipe is "stir-fry with chicken and broccoli and other types of veggies." Despite all the healthy eating going on, Arthur confessed that, "My favorite recipe is a double fudge cake mix, and I cannot share it with you." (Well, as Rachael would say, "Everything in moderation!")

Molly noted, "Our new favorite class recipe is Kale Chips and was given to us by our school librarian, Ginger. We used purple kale, but you can also use curly green kale. You cut them into 2-inch strips and lightly brush them with olive oil. Next, lay them on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put them in a 400°F oven for 10-15 minutes and enjoy!"

What new food have you tried at school?

Allie has tried oregano, while Ben’s "newest food" is arugula. Chet’s new food is kale.

Have you encouraged your parents to try buying new kinds of veggies or to start a home garden?
Chet shared, "Yes, I do, because I like having a garden to share and to give some to other people," while Edith added, "Yes, I make my mom buy me broccoli!" Allie is proud of the "garden at our house that we grow lettuce in!"

How does having the garden make you feel?
Ben shared, "Having a garden makes me feel special because I don’t have a garden (at home) yet," while Pilar noted that, "The garden makes me feel good because I am helping the community." This sense of community is shared by Chet, who responded, "Having the garden makes me feel like I am a big help to the people in the community and the world and the economy by selling fresh things from a fresh garden." Issac "feels happy because I get to water the plants." Arthur perhaps summed it up best when he said, "It makes me feel healthy."