Growing organic gardeners

One Hancock nonprofit turns the garden into a classroom and teaches children where good food comes from.

Photography courtesy of the Cornucopia Project

According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity rates in the United States have more than tripled in the past thirty years, putting kids at risk for developing diabetes and heart disease. When Kin Schilling-a lifelong organic gardener, chef and founder of Aesop's Tables at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough-learned of these statistics, she wanted to find a way to teach young people about the importance of a healthy diet.

She had been running a small community supported agriculture (CSA) garden in Hancock that included seven families with children. When the kids came with their parents to pick up their weekly share of the produce, the children expressed a desire to help in some way. "They wanted to help me plant and weed," Schilling says, "so I proposed to the parents that I would lower the price of their CSA share if they would come and garden with their kids."

This decision proved to be quite successful and rewarding for everyone involved. "Today most kids are raised on fast food, and they don't know where their food comes from," Schilling says. "My hope is to instill a love and appreciation for the land along with a consciousness about the food they eat."

Schilling turned this idea into the Cornucopia Project, a small, grassroots nonprofit that is committed to teaching young people about healthy eating through organic gardening.

Planting a seed

Through the Cornucopia Project, Schilling and her staff run farm-based after-school programs and summer camps at the Brooks' Side Farm in Hancock where kids of all ages participate in planning, planting, maintaining and harvesting while learning about local foods and how to prepare and enjoy them.

Lest you think that it's all work and no play, there are plenty of other garden-themed activities going on. Depending on the age group, there are songs, games, stories and lots of laughter. Five kid-friendly sheep ("[The children] think they are dogs!" Schilling laughs) and nineteen nosy chickens add to the fun while helping teach the kids about home-grown fertilizer.

Dr. Dan Mathewson, the retired pediatrician who owns Brooks' Side Farm, is on hand to tell students about the history of the farm and show them some of the tools that were used by the old-time farmers. "We have some troubled teens who come to the farm, and they are wonderfully eager to help. All the discipline problems disappear when the teens are not in the confines of the classroom," Schilling notes.

Schilling worked for four years with the students and faculty at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield to develop a school garden program. With the help of a few students from the Great Brook School in Antrim, sixteen wheelchair-accessible garden beds were built. The Great Brook students donated plants they grew in their school greenhouse, and students from both schools planted and tended the garden. As the produce was harvested, it was cooked and served at the Crotched Mountain school cafeteria.

"Our mission is to get kids outside, awaken their senses, help increase their environmental responsibility, promote good health and healthy life decisions, and build meaningful community connections," Schilling says. "Kids learn cooperation, teamwork and respect for the land, and gain pride in their accomplishments. Students discover the joys of growing, knowing where their food comes from and eating it right out of the garden."

Gardens for learning

Other schools in the ConVal school district have embraced the Cornucopia Project as well, establishing school gardens with Schilling's help. At Dublin Consolidated School, students helped build six raised beds, filled them with soil and planted seeds for food that was used in school lunches and at their annual Harvest Dinner. South Meadow School in Peterborough has a greenhouse where the students grow salad greens for the school lunch program.

Students at Hancock Elementary School visit Brooks' Side Farm weekly. To celebrate National Food Day last fall, they harvested their vegetables and cooked soups that served 160 people from the school and the community. The Hancock elementary students also grew seventy-nine pounds of potatoes to sell to Roy's Market in Peterborough, donating the proceeds to the local Food Bank and the Monadnock Humane Society.

In 2011, the Cornucopia Project received a $5,000 grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation that was used to build seven raised beds at the Monadnock Regional Middle School. The Cornucopia Project is working with teachers to incorporate the project into the math and science curriculum, and there are plans to begin gardens at six more elementary schools in the Monadnock region.

Growing lessons

School gardens are taking off all around the state, according to Ruth Smith, state coordinator of New Hampshire Agriculture in the Classroom, who is working to develop a school garden network.

"Gardens are a wonderful tool for teaching children where their food comes from, but beyond the obvious connections to food and health, my mantra is that there is nothing that you can't teach in the garden," Smith says. "Whether it's language arts, science, history, ecology, math, physics or chemistry, gardening can be used to enhance the core curriculum."

If you would like to see a gardening program at your local school, be prepared to volunteer. For a school garden to be successful, Smith recommends a "three-legged stool" approach. "You need to involve the community, the cafeteria and the curriculum," she says. Bringing in gardening partners from the community is important to provide support for the teachers; interdisciplinary lessons support the core curriculum; and through the school lunch program, the whole school gets to enjoy the fruits-and vegetables-of everyone's labors.

It takes a village

"We wouldn't be successful without friends and the community behind us," Schilling says. "Community support is vital in helping to make our programs flourish."

To bring her love of gardening and fresh food to the greater community, Schilling goes beyond school grounds to partner with two community centers-the Grapevine in Antrim and the River

Center in Peterborough-teaching parents and children how to make better food choices and prepare simple, healthful meals.

Another exciting partnership is with the Peterborough Recreation Department. This year, the Cornucopia Project received a $20,000 grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Fund to help build a community garden behind the old armory in Peterborough. Food grown there will benefit local food banks. "Community- and school-based gardens are places where people of all ages come together to learn about where their food comes from," Schilling says.

Dig in

Your home garden can serve as an outdoor classroom for showing your kids how and where we get our food while connecting them to nature and the environment. Even the littlest ones love to learn about dirt, plants and bugs. Watching a ten-foot tall sunflower grow from a small seed is a magical experience for a four-year-old. Children learn how the garden gives back more than the gardener puts in and take great pride in their achievements. What's more is that getting kids out in the fresh air means they can't watch television, text or play a video game while they are gardening.

Schilling's passion for gardening with kids is infectious. "They feed my soul!" she says. Sharing your enthusiasm for gardening with the children in your life- whether your own kids, or your grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends or neighbors-plants a seed that could blossom into a lifelong love of gardening and nature. With a little guidance and encouragement, your budding gardener may head down a path to a healthier life filled with flowers and fresh food.

"Our children are the seeds of the future," Schilling says. "We believe we are changing lives one garden at a time."

Categories: Gardening & Landscape