In interviewing various people managing school gardens in the Pikes Peak area, it has been difficult to utilize the garden as both a learning environment and a source for cafeteria food. Most of the schools in the area have selected to mainly focus on one or the other due to safe food policies. If you would like to use the crops for cafeteria food there are guidelines that must be followed at the national, state, and district levels. Denver schools have done an amazing job at creating a cohesive manual that you may find useful. I have also provided some links at the bottom of this page to Colorado food safety policies.
In addition to safe food policies that must be followed for cafeteria food, you will also have to follow the policies of the food management company in your school (unless your school is self-operated). Most public schools use Sodexo for their food management needs. Even though the management company promotes the image of using fresh local foods, whether or not this actually occurs, I am not sure of. I know that some Sodexo representatives in the area have been completely against using garden crops for cafeteria food. There is a basic sheet of Sodexo policies that can be found here. The main issue is with the use of composting. Composting is an excellent interactive science experiment for children to learn from but compost cannot be used in a garden when crops will be eaten in the cafeteria. However, even if you decided to follow their policies, I am not sure how open to using garden crops Sodexo representatives will be. Colorado College uses Bon Appetite and has a fantastic partnership between the garden and the cafeterias. They may have greater flexibility to do so being a private school, however. If your school is self-operated, you will need to discuss guidelines with administration and be sure to follow safe food policies for your district. It may be easier to get fresh healthy foods into the cafeteria if your school is self-operated. Plus, at a self-operated school the garden could reduce your overall food cost!
A Learning Environment
Utilizing the garden as primarily a learning environment seems to be the most effective way to get the garden going without too many other issues and to get kids interacting in the garden. It can be used to teach subjects that must be covered in the academic year as well as nutrition. Experiential learning (learning by doing) has been found to increase retention rates by 64% compared to learning from lecture. Also, learning about nutrition in a garden setting has been found to influence food choices made by children much more than being taught nutrition in a classroom setting. Schools that use the garden as mostly a teaching environment use crops to make and eat dishes in the classroom. This way students’ are still improving their nutritional intake and getting a snack which can help to improve attention. Do keep in mind that the garden must be handicap accessible if it is a learning environment, so keep this in mind when creating raised beds.
Some teachers may be hesitant or reluctant to use the garden as a teaching environment. They may lack the confidence or time to create a lesson plan which takes place in the garden. I recommend having a fellow teacher that they can turn to who is comfortable teaching in the garden, if possible, for help and suggestions. Also, Foothills elementary is using the Junior Master Gardener’s Curriculum developed by 4-H to integrate teaching in the garden into the standard curriculum of various grade levels. The book they are using can be found here. It includes lessons, activities, and worksheets formatted for standardized tests.
Photo courtesy of usda.gov
Links to Colorado safe food policies:
*see the page on Encouragement for sources on learning retention*
Page Authored by: Heather A. McMillin