Inch by Inch, Row by Row: Kids Grow Their Own Food

Where do the ingredients that make up a pizza really come from? Did someone ever teach you this in school? With more and more schools and community programs focusing on organic agriculture, we turned to an expert, Beret Halverson, at a very special location in Portland, Oregon. This 12-acre site is a Learning Garden. Have you ever been to such a place?

Interview with Beret Halverson — Learning Garden Specialist

What is a “Learning Garden"?
A learning garden is an educational facility, where students come and learn about where their food comes from. The Learning Gardens Laboratory is a 12-acre site in South East Portland. It is currently used to education Portland State Students, Oregon State Extension Urban Horticulture Students and Master Gardeners, Lane Middle School Students, S.U.N program participants, and Community Transition School Students all of whom come to the garden to learn about how to grow food and often use the food in their school cafeterias or learn how to cook it themselves.

The idea is to provide hands-on education, and improve student’s health and well-being. Learning gardens are essentially “living laboratories” or places to study the science of ecology. They provide a great environment to learn about interconnection, cycles, interdependence, diversity, patterns, balance and systems. Plus they are fun places to check out bugs, compost, plants, flowers, food, birds and dirt!

How do you relate every-day foods to plants that grow out of the Earth?
Ever since becoming a gardener I am much more aware of food and the state it’s in when I buy it. I feel the healthiest when I am eating fresh food and I love to support local farms when ever possible. Eating well and cooking healthy food is a constant challenge for me as it is for most people, and I hope that more and more people are able to access support to learn about how to cook and prepare fresh foods in simple ways. For this reason learning gardens are important because children are learning these important lessons and skills right from the start rather then later in life.

Describe the taste of foods that come out of the Learning Garden.
Satisfying and fresh! Satisfying because the food is the product of a labor of love and fresh because it hasn’t traveled in a truck or sat on a shelf. It tastes exactly as it should taste.

I recently heard that the Learning Gardens may be growing foods for Portland Public Schools – How’s that going?
We are growing food to donate to the Portland Public School’s Harvest of the Month program. In this program the school cafeteria features one locally grown crop each month. They source the food from small, local producers and promote the item with posters and activity sheets given to all of the schools. This spring we grew radishes for the April Harvest of the Month, but due to a rainy spell, most were not ready until April 30th! That’s one of the challenges with creating a schedule based around crops, the weather may not cooperate!

We also donate food to the Lane Middle school cafeteria. The students from Lane Middle School come to the garden and will often take produce back to their school food service personnel to prepare for lunch.

What are some tips that we novice gardener/cooks can take away form the Learning Gardens?
Support your local school garden programs, they are great educational tools and kids love them! Encourage your local school to start a garden! Find ways to incorporate cooking into garden programs. Invite local chefs to be a part of gardening programs, ask your kids what they are growing at school and prepare those foods at home. Encourage your kids to try new foods and grow some of their favorite food at home.

If you have children in Portland Public Schools buy the "local" lunch they offer once a month as a part of the harvest of the month program. If you want to start a garden at home, start small, and plant the things you and your family really love to eat. Remember gardening is a process not an event. Take good notes and make lots of observations! If you can, shop at farmers markets to find quality, locally grown, fresh produce.

Any final thoughts or future plans for the Learning Gardens?
The dream for the Learning Gardens Laboratory is to become a model site for garden based education in the Pacific Northwest as well as the nation. We hope to find funding to hire staff and improve our infrastructure. Our existing greenhouses are worn out and we don’t have a classroom, office or kitchen. We hope to build a new greenhouse, offices, and a kitchen/classroom and a commercial kitchen. This will allow us to expand our programming to more students in the neighborhood and be able to offer nutrition and cooking education using the things we grow on site.

• Visit the Learning Garden's website: Learning Garden Laboratory

Related: The Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)

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