Iowa City schools seek more gardening in curriculum


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Eastern Iowa school officials are readying their spades and shovels for the coming spring.

The Iowa City School District's Farm to School hosted a training workshop Feb. 18 on developing student-run gardens at schools. Local health officials said these gardens help cut down on the amount of processed foods students consume while mixing gardening education into classwork.

David Cavagnaro, school garden coordinator of Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness, said developing student- and faculty-maintained gardens will improve school-food quality and aid students in science and biology.

"Every school should incorporate gardens into their everyday curriculum," he said. "For example, instead of learning the parts of a plant by lecture or reading, students can learn by growing their own plants and will remember the lesson."

In February 2011, district schools only had three school gardens, with Weber Elementary and Northwest Junior High beginning gardens last fall. Officials from five other district schools — Mann Elementary, Lemme Elementary, Shimek Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, and Garner Elementary — are considering adding gardens this spring.

Cavagnaro has added 19 school gardens in school districts surrounding Decorah.
Heather Widmayer, the Iowa City district's Farm to School coordinator, said school gardens will help bring students away from heavily processed foods found in cafeterias and grocery stores.

"Kids don't even know what a fresh tomato looks like," she said. "By starting gardens at schools, we're giving kids an opportunity to learn how food grows and to taste fresh, healthy produce straight from the garden."

School officials said Cavagnaro could expand playgrounds and outdoor areas to build garden spaces with easy access to water, light, and air. Placing the gardens outside this way, he said, will help students — working in small groups of six to eight at a time — get the proper hands-on experience.

While Farm to School officials have focused their efforts on elementary- and middle-school gardens, Cavagnaro said high-school students also need to recognize the benefits of home-grown food and spread those to their younger peers.

"The empowered students are typically the ones who spread the word," he said.

The University of Iowa maintains a garden and uses its produce in the Burge dining service.

Scott Koepke, a New Pioneer Food Co-op education outreach coordinator, said students who grow their own food are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables.

"This is for the lives of the students," he said. "We need to inspire them to take advantage of what Iowa's deep, rich soil has to offer."

Developing more healthy and self-sufficient eating habits during the school years will help children spread better habits to future generations, Cavagnaro said.

"The future lies in the hands of the children in the schools, and this is really where the efforts need to be made," he said. "Students think chicken nuggets are the best thing since apple pie."

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