LSU AgCenter school garden programs flourishing in Acadiana

Adult female teacher stands near raised bed vegetable garden while a number of students look on.

Seventh Ward Elementary Physical Education teacher Leisa Lee points out some of the new blooms in the Abbeville school’s raised-bed vegetable garden. This spring marked the first time the school teamed up with the LSU AgCenter for a school garden project. Photo by Derek Albert/ LSU AgCenter

Female FCS agent chops and distributes fresh vegetables to a line of students.

Vermilion Parish Family and Consumer Science Agent Anna Barras distributes vegetables as a healthy mid-morning snack for students at Seventh Ward Elementary in Abbeville. The students sampled the same types of produce that were growing nearby in the school’s vegetable garden. Photo by Derek Albert/LSU AgCenter

Student waters outdoor vegetable plants in large round container.

Koye Babineaux, a student at L. Leo Judice Elementary in Scott, tends to his garden plot. As one of Lafayette Parish School System’s Environmental Academies, the school was one of the first to institute a school garden curriculum. Photo provided

Two girls pose while eating salad in a school classroom.

L. Leo Judice students Amelia Reed, left, and Prinaya Shirsat dig into some of the fresh produce harvested from their school garden plots. One of the goals of the LSU AgCenter school garden program is to teach youth how to make more healthful and nutritive eating decisions. Photo provided

(06/08/22) ABBEVILLE, La. — The LSU AgCenter is instituting school garden programs across southwestern Louisiana to teach youngsters where their food comes from and how to make healthful choices in their daily lives.

Seventh Ward Elementary school in rural Vermilion Parish is surrounded by crawfish ponds and sugarcane fields. But the students may not relate the area’s commercial agriculture crops to the foods they eat daily.

School garden projects help students see exactly where their food comes from, said Anna Barras, a family and consumer sciences agent with the AgCenter in Vermilion Parish.

“This is a rural community. There is a lot of food being grown around them, but a lot of kids don’t grow up on farms, so they are not all sure how it comes about,” Barras said. “We are doing our best to show them where — at least — their fruits and vegetables come from.”

Marlene Primeaux, principal of Seventh Ward Elementary, said the program is more than just an opportunity for the students to expand their nutritive culinary options. It serves as a way to teach them that there are healthful, frugal food options that the students can grow in their own home gardens.

Barras said one of the goals of the school gardens is for students to bring healthy habits back home.

“Most of the kids don’t get to try things like this at home if their parents don’t buy it,” Primeaux said as the students sampled fresh green beans, bell peppers, squash and cherry tomatoes. “By exposing them to the different things that Anna brings, maybe, they can ask their parents to buy those things.”

Physical education teacher Leisa Lee said the students have become more aware of the school garden especially when it comes to weather patterns. Lee pointed out to the captivated youth that one of their squash plants produced a double squash, possibly caused by over- or underwatering. Lee told the students that watering the raised beds posed a challenge but will be adjusted for future crops.

“This was all an experiment,” Lee said. “As the years go by, we will hopefully get better at it.”

The three, 3-foot-by-3-foot raised beds that compose the entire school garden could not produce enough produce to feed the whole school. So, Barras carried grocery bags full of fresh vegetables so that all the school’s students could sample the same produce growing in their school garden.

While some schools have plots of land set aside for their school gardens, not all facilities can meet that demand. At Seventh Ward Elementary, local farmers and Vermilion Parish Farm Bureau pitched in to provide the material and manpower to construct the three raised beds where the students witnessed seeds turn into food.

Barras instructed the students on proper planting and watering techniques while the students monitored their crop’s progress. The small bounty they produced included tomatoes, green beans, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, basil and other herbs.

Barras said the school gardens became the Vermilion Parish FCS agents’ Healthy Communities project. In 2019, when fellow Vermilion Parish FCS agent Mandy Armentor linked up with the schools for the Healthy Communities project, they began with playground stencils to promote physical activity for students.

This year, the advent of the school garden came as Seventh Ward Elementary was the last school in the district that did not have a garden of its own.

“Every year, we are trying to add something to give the school more access to healthy foods, to teach the kids where their food comes from and to promote physical activity,” Barras said.

In neighboring Lafayette Parish, LSU AgCenter agent Charles Hebert said nine schools participated in the AgCenter’s School Garden Initiative during the 2021-22 school year. The initiative is a collaboration among the LSU AgCenter, the Lafayette Parish School System, Lafayette Farm Bureau, Louisiana Master Gardeners and the Lafayette Women’s Foundation.

Hebert said while the program is multifaceted, the goal for school gardens is to change students’ eating habits as early as possible and to instill in the students a greater appreciation of green spaces. He said though all of the students eventually get to eat their produce, some programs have grown enough of a surplus of fresh fruits and vegetables to give back to the local community in the forms of food donations to Acadiana-area charities.

In addition to the lessons that students learn about gardening techniques and dietary benefits of eating healthier, Hebert said, the School Gardens Initiative concurrently teaches students lessons in English, mathematics and science skills as well as character-building social skills.

“We want the garden to be a component of classroom curriculum and nutritional education with the garden being the outdoor laboratory,” Hebert said. “But in all our schools, either community service or service learning is a component of their garden.”

“Each month learning about how to tend to a garden, nutritional lessons and all about local farmers has been a joy. I have watched my class soak up the information like sponges and take that knowledge and apply it to our beautiful garden at school,” said Cathedral Carmel educator Courtney Green. “This program has also ignited a spark in my students and inspired them to eat better and shop locally.”

The program has continued despite COVID-19 restrictions. Hebert said plans for the 2022-23 school year include returning in-person to the schools in the fall with monthly visits from local master gardeners to aid each of the participating students with their own container garden. During the COVID-19 pandemic, instructors, AgCenter agents and Master Gardener advisors resorted to virtual means to keep an eye on the school gardens.

Aiesha Broussard, mother of a Green T. Lindon Elementary student, told the AgCenter that the School Garden Initiative made a major impact on her 7-year-old daughter during the last school year.

“She has learned several skills such as patience, compassion, teamwork, bonding and most important--responsibility. Overall, gardening in the school system has taught my daughter to demonstrate a positive attitude and achievements,” Broussard said.

The annual school garden initiative in Lafayette Parish culminates in the On Cuisine du Jardin Cook-Off event where student gardeners are paired with local chefs and dignitaries to prepare a meal that meets the USDA MyPlate standards.

For educators who are interested in establishing or expanding a school garden, the place to start is the Seeds to Success: The Louisiana Farm to School Program website. Seeds to Success is a USDA-funded program developed through a cooperative endeavor between the Louisiana Department of Education and the LSU AgCenter.

Program manager Celeste Finney said the website offers educators everything they need to know about utilizing a school garden as an outdoor laboratory to match their classroom curriculum. The site even offers a seasonal planting guide, family recipes, in-class activities and a breakdown of how educators can link their garden lessons to traditional classroom subjects with state education standards.

“I think a lot of teachers are seeing the value in gardening and how they can really connect with the kids who may not be able to get everything out of a lecture-based teaching style,” Finney said. “I think the garden has so much to offer in those classrooms to really give a hands-on piece to what they’re learning in the classroom.”

Finney said Seeds to Success is hosting a Farm to School Garden Leadership Workshop. The event, to be held June 20 to 23 in Baton Rouge, is designed exclusively for educators who want to learn how to build and sustain a school garden and incorporate the garden into their curriculums.

“We’ve seen time and time again that when hands-on experiences are tied to curriculum and nutrition education, kids change their eating behaviors,” Finney said. “They are more likely to eat fruits, eat vegetables and go home to get their parents excited about cooking, shopping and even gardening.”

6/8/2022 6:14:40 PM
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