In Georgia, a Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) program is collaborating with a School Nutrition Program to provide unique learning opportunities for elementary school students. As a result, students are learning about topics ranging from alternative farming methods to raising chickens that are often left out of the current school teaching curriculum.
Alternative farming methods such as hydroponics and tower gardens are being used across multiple elementary schools in this Georgian school district. Both methods are ideal to utilize use in schools since space is often limited. Maintained by STEM leaders, hydroponic systems can be used to teach water conservation, biology of plant growth, chemistry through maintenance of PH, history through hydroponics in ancient civilizations, and math by calculating net gain or loss in costs to produce and sell. Furthermore, a variety of fruits and vegetables can be grown hydroponically such as lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and carrots. Managed by school nutrition staff, tower gardens are equally as versatile. They are a form of hydroponic farming called aeroponics that involves growing produce in a tower like structure with larger plants (squash and melons) growing from the bottom and smaller plants (lettuce and herbs) growing from the top. Currently, tower gardens are located at three elementary schools in this school district. More information about these alternative farming methods can be found here: https://extension.uga.edu/content/dam/extension-county-offices/paulding-county/anr/Hydroponic%20%26%20Aquaponic%20Gardening.pdf
This collaboration takes farm to school activities to the next level by allowing the students to have access to a “farm” and grow produce right outside their classrooms. In this Georgian school district there are raised garden beds that grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at each school. Students are involved in seeding, caring for, harvesting, and preparing the produce for taste tests in the classroom or cafeteria. Throughout the season you can find students out in the garden learning food safety techniques related to harvesting produce for student consumption. While lettuce may not be a fan favorite at lunch, the personal connection and effort put into growing these vegetables serves as an incentive for the students to try the otherwise unpopular foods they wouldn’t normally reach for. Through each garden activity and taste test, these students are becoming more familiar with fresh fruits and vegetables. Students learn about freshly harvested radishes and taste test apple coleslaw! Previous research has shown that having children repeatedly taste vegetables that they disliked in a school cafeteria setting is a strategy to promote increased liking of these items over time (Lakkakula, Geaghan, Zanovec, Pierce, & Tuuri, 2010).
Themes for lessons are put together based on the state departments Harvest of the Month produce item. The school nutrition staff add fun nutrition facts and graphics relating to the monthly item. The facts are then tied in with taking care of our bodies and utilizing nutrients from food. For example, kale is the December Harvest of the Month. During this month, a kale
salad recipe lesson was used to create an educational discussion around the healthy benefits of kale as well as how to grow and prepare it. The lunch menus at each of the schools feature the Harvest of the Month item on their menus for added exposure.
Connecting students with their food does not stop with fruits and vegetables. Some schools in this county have animals on site as well. An active beehive at one of the schools is used to teach students the importance of bees as pollinators. Another school houses chickens and goats. Students are even taught how to compost through the addition of food scraps as nitrogen and paper products as carbon.
This collaboration is made possible with staff funding from Title IV and material funding from the school’s STEM program. Even with this funding, there is often a shortage of funds and staff. Catering funds from the School Nutrition Program help but finding funds to support all of the current and future activities is always a challenge. Although it may not always be easy, this learning experience provides over 2,000 elementary students with a unique learning experience right on their school campus.
Acknowledgement: Dr. Debra Morris, Jackson County School System (JCSS) Nutrition Director, Ileta Redmond, Farm to School Specialist and Melissa Gurevitch, FoodCorp Service Member at JCSS
Lakkakula, A., Geaghan, J., Zanovec, M., Pierce, S., & Tuuri, G. (2010). Repeated taste exposure increases liking for vegetables by low-income elementary school children. Appetite, 55(2), 226-231.
Dr. Janani Thapa, Assistant Professor, University of Georgia, firstname.lastname@example.org (corresponding author)
Allie Lindke, PhD Candidate/Dietetic Intern, University of Georgia