From Seed To TableMon 12 May 2014
Story by Almut Stephan Marino
How do you grow a healthier community? In St. Louis’s Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, it happens one child and one family at a time. Eight years ago, thanks to visionary administrators, teachers, and parents who were committed to wellness and sustainability education, the district received grant support to launch the Seed-to-Table Program at its pre-K through first grade Early Childhood Center.
Seed-to-Table is a special curriculum course, or “special,” like music, art, or PE. Students participate in the class for an hour every week as part of their regular school day. The curriculum is focused on organic gardening, culinary arts, nutrition, farm animal care, environmental stewardship, and global citizenship. Beginning in preschool, children work in the gardens and the kitchen classroom to grow, prepare, and enjoy a large variety of fresh foods.
Rather than integrating gardening and nutrition topics into the classroom curriculum, Seed-to-Table embeds math, science and literacy into its own stand-alone curriculum. Students explore, investigate, apply math concepts, and practice science process skills in a variety of outdoor environments and in the kitchen classroom, which is adjacent to the school’s lunchroom. Children enhance their literacy skills by reading and writing about the Seed-to-Table work in which they’re engaged. Recently, to practice their public speaking skills, one first grade class gave a presentation about their rain barrel installation project at a school-wide assembly.
The Seed-to-Table curriculum engages students throughout the school year. In the late summer and fall, they work primarily in the gardens, harvesting what they’ve grown and preparing new dishes every week. They also study plant and insect life cycles. In the fall and spring, the school's barn welcomes farm animals, such as cows, sheep, pigs, turkeys, donkeys, and goats, from a local farm to stay at the school for a week, or until the next animal arrives. In addition, the school has a coop of six hens that provide the eggs for recipes that the children prepare.
In the winter months, students focus their study on nutrition and how foods affect our bodies. Besides the five food groups, students learn Traffic Light Eating, a program that emphasizes quality food and teaches students to make healthy choices. The concept is so simple that five-year olds are teaching their families at home. As a result, parents are switching to whole grains, buying fresh fruits and vegetables, and trying new foods with their kids. Every day at Seed-to-Table, a child or parent shares a food story or asks a nutrition question.
In the Seed-to-Table classroom, large maps cover the walls, adorned with pictures of foods showing where in the world they are grown. The maps also reflect seasonality, and food images are moved to different growing regions depending on the time of year. Students learn that eating foods in season, grown as close to home as possible, is the best choices for our health and the planet.
In the late winter, students start seeds indoors and transplant them outside as soon as spring warms the compost-rich soil, which is made from cafeteria waste. Much of the produce is consumed in class by the children, but on May 16th, the school will once again participate in the Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day by hosting a farmer's market to sell extra produce, saved seeds, transplants, perennial divisions, and honey, and to offer free food samples of dishes prepared from the garden's bounty. The community is invited to join the festivities that day at the school.
Finally, five Saturdays a year, families come together to work in the garden and share a community potluck featuring foods from the school and home gardens. Volunteering side-by-side in the gardens allows students and parents to build sweat equity in Seed-to-Table and provides guidance and inspiration for their own home gardens.
Since its humble beginning as two 4x6 raised beds, the Seed-to-Table curriculum has spread to Maplewood Richmond Heights district schools through the 8th grade. At the high school level, Seed-to-Table exists as an apprenticeship program: student apprentices are paid to work in the gardens that grow food for the high school cafeteria.
With Seed-to-Table, the district has seen a revolution in how students and their families engage in nutritious, sustainable food practices. Students at the Early Childhood Center are spreading their knowledge to their households and into the community, encouraging families to cook simple dishes that use real food, and as a result helping those around them make healthier choices every day.
About the author: Almut Stephan Marino is the St. Louis area Food Revolution Ambassador. A registered dietitian, chef, and LEAN wellness coach by training, she is also a life-long organic gardener. She leads the Seed-to-Table program at the Maplewood Richmond Heights Early Childhood Center, where her passion for gardening, cooking nutritious foods, and teaching has become her profession. At home she grows and cooks with her two sons, David and Seppi, and her husband, Mike, who is an artisan baker.
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