Women’s council grant supports school garden

Story and photos
by Sonja J. Keith

Students at Carolyn Lewis Elementary School in Conway are learning about food and nutrition through a unique, hands-on experience.
Amanda Krell, instructional facilitator at the school, had the idea to create a school garden. She had seen school gardens in other districts in the state and also enjoys gardening as a hobby. “I thought it would be something beneficial for our kids to have here,” she said.

A school garden was added during the 2015-16 school year through a $750 grant from the Conway School Foundation. Ten raised beds were created with each grade level assigned two beds and responsible for deciding what to plant in them. “All the students in the whole school planted a seed,” said Krell.

During the school year and summer, students help maintain the garden and harvest the vegetables, which are sampled by students and staff. A variety of fruits and vegetables have been grown, including watermelon, kale, lettuce, radishes, okra, beets, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, peas, garlic and carrots.

This school year, Carolyn Lewis Elementary has partnered with FoodCorps, which is part of the AmeriCorps Service Network, for a FoodCorps worker, Sarah Lane, to expand the garden program and integrate nutrition information with class instruction.

In support of the efforts at Carolyn Lewis Elementary, the Conway Regional Women’s Council recently awarded $500 to the school. The council awarded 15 grants totaling $7,500 to area schoolteachers to support child wellness and fitness initiatives. This is the second year for the grant program, which is available to schools within the Conway Regional service area (Faulkner, Cleburne, Perry, Conway and Van Buren counties). It offers PreK-12th grade educators financial support for innovative classroom programs promoting physical activity, good nutrition and/or personal wellness. 

Carolyn Lewis educators will use the grant to purchase equipment to implement cooking and nutrition classes using fresh fruits and vegetables from the school garden. The purpose of The Garden Café is “to create a schoolwide culture of healthy eating that excites and energizes the students and staff to learn about the food they eat, make educated food decisions and cook healthy snacks,” according to Krell.

Principal Tina Antley expressed appreciation for the women’s council grant. “We can’t give the kids the healthy foods if they don’t have a way to prepare it.”

“I’m just so thankful for that grant because it’s just made the connection,” Krell said. “It’s brought the garden into the classroom.”

Lane added that all of the equipment purchased through the grant has already been put to use. “I don’t think we’d be as far along with our program if we hadn’t received the grant money from the women’s council,” she said. “It really kick started  our whole idea of what we wanted to do this year in making sure kids grow up healthy…We wouldn’t be at the point we are now without the women’s council.”

In addition to the two grants, the school previously received help from Lowe’s, which supplied two additional raised beds, a garden shed, tools and other supplies. “They’ve been awesome to us,” said Antley. “Without them, we wouldn’t be as far as we are.”

Lane, who is from Seattle, began work at the school on Sept. 1. She will continue through July 31, with the possibility of extending her service a second year. Carolyn Lewis Elementary is the first Central Arkansas school to have a FoodCorps member.

There are 215 FoodCorps workers in 18 states. The program is part of the national AmeriCorps initiative with funding from a variety of national corporate partners. Antley said the school provides financial support for the FoodCorps position through its activity fund, not tax dollars.

Lane has a degree in biology with a focus in ecology and Spanish. She has a variety of teaching experience but her passion has been sustainability and conservation. “I’ve always loved food and the community that it brings. I stumbled across FoodCorps and knew this was the right one,” she said, adding that this is her first experience in Arkansas and it was her first choice. “I like adventures and it would be a new place to go to, a different area of the United States and I liked the message they had about Arkansas.”

Lane provides monthly nutrition classes for the 540 students at Carolyn Lewis Elementary. Working with Krell, Lane is creating the lesson plans. The classes include taste tests, which most recently featured sweet potato smoothies. The supplies were purchased for that test but Lane would like to see the school garden provide enough produce for future tests strictly from the garden. She added that the garden has provided enough okra that was served through the school cafeteria.

“It just depends how well things grow out there,” Lane said. “The kids are the ones planting the seeds and tending it so it’s not perfect and that’s OK but that’s why we don’t know how much of a harvest we will have.”

In addition to the nutritional benefits of the garden, the program has had applications in other areas of curriculum, including math. For example, fourth-graders, who were studying area and perimeter, were challenged to design a layout for the garden that maximized space.

The educators point out that for some of the students, the garden and program have exposed them to new information. For example, Krell said some of the students were unaware that cucumbers are used to make pickles, and that pizza sauce was made from tomatoes.

Lane, who is also working on a maintenance plan for the school garden, also provides assistance to teachers on lessons. In addition, she leads the Sprout Scouts, an afterschool gardening club for 20 third- and fourth-grade students that started in October. “FoodCorps developed the curriculum for it,” Lane said. The group has made and tasted a variety of items, including hummus, a radish salad and a kale smoothie.

Antley pointed out that some of the food from the garden has been shared through the backpack program that helps combat hunger among students. It included instructions on how to prepare. “We certainly want our kids to know about making healthy choices but we’re trying to reach out to the community, too,” she said.

Krell added that one of the goals of FoodCorps is to reach out into the community to help make the school garden program sustainable while promoting health and wellness, even if there isn’t a FoodCorps worker. “We want our teachers to be educated, our parents and our community members to be educated and they all have a part in the garden,” Krell said.

“We want them to see the value of the garden to our school and community,” Antley added.

Lane said her main focus is ensuring that Carolyn Lewis students grow up healthy and have access to fresh fruits and vegetables that they are helping to grow and they understand where it comes from. “I want them to get their hands dirty,” she said. “When we are out in the garden, I tell them to show me their hands and how dirty they are. There is so much that can be learned from planting a seed and coming back to see it is growing.”

Lane said there is a lot of excitement about the program and the school garden. “The kids are like, ‘When do we get to come out into the garden next?’ or ‘What are we going to learn about today?’ I think there is a lot of growth potential with the kids.”

“I think it’s empowering them to have that knowledge and make that connection with food and nature, and actually watching something grow,” Krell said of the impact of the program. “I get satisfaction watching something grow that I had a part in. I think they do too. It’s a little bit like magic watching it happen.”