A new “back to the land” movement is starting to sprout in region elementary schools.
This week, students at Johnston Elementary School in Highland and Nathan Hale Elementary School in Whiting planted school gardens with vegetables and fruits that will grow over the summer and be harvested next fall.
Tuesday’s Nathan Hale project is part of the American Heart Association’s Teaching Gardens program that debuted at the school last year. On May 28 and 30, students at two Valparaiso elementary schools — Parkview and Memorial — also will plant teaching gardens using the AHA model.
The Johnston garden, planted Thursday in the Outdoor Science Lab courtyard, grew out of staff suggestions.
What’s unique about all the produce grown in all these gardens is where it ends up — being served as part of the children’s lunches in the school cafeterias next fall.
Each garden is a hands-on project that also fits in the schools’ science curriculum, organizers said.
“To get this area ready for the planting took five days of work on the part of teachers, staff, volunteers and such student groups as Girls on the Run and the student council,” Johnston Principal Kevin Trezak said about the Outdoor Science Lab garden. “We have to make sure we take time to fit in these kinds of lessons.”
The Johnston school garden continues a tradition of hands-on science lessons started in 2009. That year, 20 volunteers from The Home Depot’s northern Indiana territory donated their time and expertise to reclaim what was a dumping ground for equipment and to transform it in a self-supporting outdoor science lab.
The project won national recognition in 2010 from Home Depot and resulted in $8,000 in prize winnings that was further invested in the program, Trezak said.
The gardens also serve to encourage younger generations to eat more fruits and vegetables “and encourage them to have a good life,” said Nikky Witkowski, a staff member of Purdue University Extension Service based in Crown Point, who directed the planting activities at Johnston Elementary.
Johnston students in kindergarten through fifth grade planted both seeds and seedlings of such fruits and vegetables as tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli and melons. Most raised their hands when Witkowski asked if they had gardens at home.
“Give them a little pat and say have a good sleep,” Witkowski told teacher Kathy Coglianese’s students after they planted melon.
Taking the message home to families about gardening is also a focus of the American Heart Association program, said Ryan Johnson with the AHA based in Chicago.
“We want the students to go home and tell their parents about gardening and encourage them to plant foods they can eat at home,” he said.
The AHA Teaching Gardens program is “a fresh new approach in the fight against childhood obesity,” said Johnson about the effort that partners with local businesses and industry.
ArcelorMittal in East Chicago provided the financial support for the Nathan Hale Elementary garden.
The Parkview Elementary Teaching Garden in Valparaiso being planted May 28 is sponsored by Methodist Hospitals of Merrillville and Gary. St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart will support the teaching garden planted by students at Valparaiso’s Memorial Elementary School on May 30.