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In a Child’s Garden

Local Schools See the Fruits of their Labor Thanks to Gardening Programs

By Aleza Freeman

“Hi. Buenos Dias. My name is Leon Garcia. Quien es? Wanna buy something?”

The Scofield Middle School 8th grader shares his sales pitch during a community farmer’s market on the downtown Zappos campus in November. He is one of more than 300 students, from 32 Clark County School District (CCSD) schools, selling their school garden grown produce and crafts.

While many of the elementary, middle, and high school students previously sold their produce to fellow students during farmer’s markets at school, the downtown market is a relatively new experience, piloted last May by the country’s largest school garden program, Green Our Planet.

“We wanted to let people know we’re growing food in the desert of Las Vegas,” says Sarah Russel, special projects coordinator for Green Our Planet. “It doesn’t have to be imported from Mexico or California.”

More than 120 schools throughout the district reap bountiful benefits thanks to Green Our Planet, but other local nonprofits, like Create a Change Now and Garden Farms, are also helping transform the valley’s schools into living classrooms.

These garden programs increase student test scores in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), improve student nutrition, and teach sustainability and financial literacy. Other benefits include increased student retention, access to fresh foods for low-income families, and a decrease in obesity and disease. The programs are accessible to kids of all ages, including English as a Second Language (ESL) and special needs students.

“Teachers can take what they would usually teach in the classroom and put it in a garden setting,” says Russel. “It’s not just sitting in front of a whiteboard, it’s actually getting your hands dirty.”

A garden for every school.

“Growing food is the most revolutionary act you can do today,” says community activist Owen Carver, owner of specialty coffee roaster Café de Paraíso. “When you then take that and move it into schools … it transforms education.”

Carver, who donates a portion of his company’s profits in Nevada to Green Our Planet, claims that the positive impact of school gardens on test scores is sometimes as high as 20 percent.

“The reason is, you’re not trapped in a box indoors where nothing is alive,” he says. “You’re outside. Things are vibrant. They change every day. Kids are constantly soaking up information.”

Every school, K-12, should have a campus garden, according to Hadassah Lefkowitz, an educator and school garden advocate.

“From an academic standpoint, the gardens are a great way to transform the curriculum,” says Lefkowitz. “From a health and nutritional standpoint, kids are connecting more and more to their food and making much better choices about what they’re eating.”

The former CCSD G.A.T.E. teacher sees school gardens as a powerful teaching tool for today’s youth; Attention spans have been shortened by technology and sitting in an isolated classroom won’t cut it.

“Kids come to life out in the garden,” she says. “They’re not going home and saying, ‘Why am I learning this? When am I going to use it?’ They’re using it. They’re learning business skills and marketing skills and life skills that take them out into the real world.”

When schools plant healthy seeds it helps the mind, body and soul to flourish.

“When you’re eating healthier food and your body is healthier, your mind can think more clearly,” she says. “It’s all connected.”

A healthier generation of Americans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in American adolescents over the past 30 years. In Las Vegas alone, more than 30 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are currently obese.

With a direct link to serious health conditions and diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cancer, obesity in the U.S. leads to hundreds of billions of dollars in health costs.

“If people were eating healthier, that number would go down immensely,” says Urban Seed Vice President of Marketing Jared Krulewitz.

Due to the growing population, more and more people are living in places where access to fresh produce is limited or non-existent. These areas, known as food deserts, are a significant part of the problem.

“This causes hunger and this also causes obesity at the same time, which is crazy,” says Krulewitz, “but it makes sense when you go to a town and they only have McDonalds, Carl’s Jr., and Jack in the Box.”

Urban Seed, headquartered just west of the Las Vegas Strip, is revolutionizing the way the world grows and provides food. Its proprietary aeroponic systems allow the year-round growth of nutrient-dense produce in any environment. That means communities everywhere can have access to fresh food.

“If we can grow in a 118 degree desert, we can definitely grow anywhere,” says Krulewitz.

Krulewitz describes a recent shift in the paradigm when it comes to people and food. He believes both kids and adults are finally becoming more food conscious, “treating their body like a temple and really thinking about what they are putting in their body.”

During a presentation on farming at a local elementary school, Krulewitz was pleasantly surprised when a student asked if the company uses non-GMO seeds.

“I was like, you’re 10 years old and you’re asking about non-GMO?” recalls Krulewitz. When he told them, “Yeah, we’re all non-GMO,” the room erupted in cheers. “Everyone was chanting ‘No GMO!’ It was really, really cool.”

Lefkowitz agrees that today’s youth will make healthier choices if given the chance.

“I see that first hand when a school is having a farmer’s market,” she says. “They have the Snack Shack, but they prefer to buy fresh kale or spinach.”

Farmer’s markets at Robert Lunt Elementary School are so popular, the most recent one raked in more than $80 on jalapenos alone.

“Kids are excited on those days,” says the school’s principal Lisa Drakulich. “They’re trying food they’ve never had. Beets. Radishes. Some are trying them just because their friends are trying. It’s such a great opportunity for students, to teach them where our food comes from and to expose families to things they wouldn’t normally buy.”

Educator and urban farmer Jennifer Gammons-Mujica works hands-on with local schools, including Lunt, through Create a Change Now. Dedicated to fighting child obesity, the local nonprofit provides hands-on learning with active gardening and a CCSD-approved health and nutrition curriculum, as well as teacher training at 22 schools.

“I think this is going to be the healthiest generation of Americans because one garden at a time you are all learning about healthy food and you’re going home and eating it,” Gammons-Mujica tells a group of Lunt 5th graders. The school’s substantial edible desert garden is Create a Change Now’s largest and most successful garden to date.

“It’s so important to think about what you eat,” insists Gammons-Mujica, crediting the superfoods in her own home garden for her quick recovery after brain surgery and a subsequent infection. “The doctor said to eat greens. That’s when my recovery went into high speed. I realized the power of food. It was a life changing moment.”

Animal, vegetable and mineral.

There’s no question that the students at Lunt are thriving as a result of their gardening lessons. The Title 1 School’s program, known as Garden University, is a special, like Music, Art and P.E., with a dedicated teacher and yearlong curriculum.

“Garden University is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” notes Gammons-Mujica. “Most schools only get about an hour a week in 20 minute increments. Here you’re out in the garden every day.”

Tending the garden has helped improve 5th grader Rayleen Gonzales’ focus and also her grades.

“There was a question about plants,” she recalls of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) standardized test. “I got a good score. I’ve learned more about math, too, because I measure how long the plants grow by inches and centimeters.”

It’s a busy morning at Lunt and the garden is buzzing with activity as a group of 5th grade students prepare for harvest. Sydney Anderson, 10, notices that the plants are dusty and asks Garden University teacher Jan Baraza if she can use a spray bottle to wash them down.

“I love spraying down plants with a hose,” notes Gammons-Mujica, taking the idea one step further.

“Yes, that would be a great idea to get a hose hooked up,” says Baraza.

Baraza lets students brainstorm solutions for fixing problems in the garden. When rabbits were eating the plants, for instance, the students concocted a plan to protect the crops using chicken wire and plastic cups.

Erik Chavez, 10, started at Lunt in 3rd grade, and was nervous about all the bees in the garden. Now, as a 5th grader, he stands casually and without concern next to enormous basil plants, where bees flurry with activity.

“Mrs. Baraza told us not to hit them, they won’t sting you,” he explains. “They’re just trying to help.”

Anderson was also nervous about working in the garden. She didn’t think she’d be good at it. Once she started getting more experience, though, her worries subsided. “I didn’t freak out,” she says with relief.

Saul Hernandez, 11, was excited when he first learned about the garden and determined to eat everything grown there.

“I like this experience; growing healthy stuff then eating it,” he explains, adding that his mom and dad serve lots of fruits and veggies at home.

While all the plants are cool, Wendy Sosa, 11, finds the carrots the most fascinating.

“The way they grow is so amazing, so many leaves for this little carrot,” she says.

“Tiny little seeds,” she adds, “grow into massive plants.”

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