Teaching kids where their food comes from

In a low-income neighborhood in southeast Portland, the Oregon State University Extension Service and Portland State University are taking children out of the classroom and into the greenhouse.

From right, Lane Middle School student Matt Bergeron cranks the handle on a composter as students Duyen Do, Viviana Arellano, Claudia Cedeno, Taylor Jada Garcia and Felix Alvarez-Millard watch. The students are learning in a garden laboratory with help from OSU Extension staff. (photo: Leela Ross)

From right, Lane Middle School student Matt Bergeron cranks the handle on a composter as students Duyen Do, Viviana Arellano, Claudia Cedeno, Taylor Jada Garcia and Felix Alvarez-Millard watch. The students are learning in a garden laboratory with help from OSU Extension staff. (photo: Leela Ross)

Under the program, the six-graders at Lane Middle School spend 1 ½ hours a week studying among arugula, beets, carrots and cabbage at the 12-acre Learning Gardens Laboratory, which is across the street from their school.

Taught by four students in PSU’s Graduate School of Education, the six-graders have been learning since the start of the school year how to design a garden, grow and identify plants and make compost.

“We want to help the students understand where their food comes from,” said OSU Extension horticulturist Weston Miller, who manages the site with help from Extension program assistant Beret Halverson. “We do this by having them get their hands dirty.”

But their education goes beyond gardening. They’ve also learned about biological diversity, food chains and the lifecycle of earthworms. They’ve taste-tested pears, dunked potatoes in water and watched them sprout roots, drunk tea made from Oregon grape, watched birds, and made sauerkraut to learn about fermentation. The instruction fits in with the students’ science curriculum and takes place during the time slotted for their science classes.

For many of the students, it has been a new experience, Halverson said.

“A lot of the children in the neighborhood don’t have backyards,” she said. “They’re not used to being outdoors and getting their boots muddy. Educating them about these things at a young age is important because they’ll value the environment when they’re older.”

This month, the students will see the fruits of their labors in the garden when they harvest radishes they helped plant. The radishes will be served in Portland Public Schools this month as part of the district’s Harvest of the Month program, which dishes up an Oregon-grown fruit or vegetable on lunch trays twice a month.

Over the next two months, the garden is expected to donate about 800 pounds of radishes to the school district’s cafeterias, Miller said.
For next school year, plans are in the works for students to harvest additional vegetables for the monthly lunch program, he said. Last fall, the garden donated lemon cucumbers to the school district for Harvest of the Month, and it gave Lane’s cafeteria tomatoes and greens that students had grown, Miller added.

The Learning Gardens Laboratory consists of five greenhouses and land that has been set aside for gardening, cover cropping and open space. PSU leases the property from Portland Public Schools and Portland Parks and Recreation.

~ Tiffany Woods

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