By Kathryn Coulibaly

It’s a typical day at Bankbridge Elementary School in Sewell. Bankbridge is part of the Gloucester County Special Services School District, and it serves students with special needs from preschool through Grade 6.

Today, FoodCorps Service Member Natalie Agee is preparing for a lesson where students will plant seeds in recycled paper milk cartons filled with soil so they can watch them grow. Their teacher will use the seed project to enhance the science curriculum. At the end of the project, the students will take the plants home to share with their families, and hopefully, to add to their own gardens.

Another class is gearing up to try smoothies made from the many delicious things Agee is helping students and staff grow in the school garden. Students are guided by staff and volunteers in selecting ripe produce out of the squash, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, kale, radishes, carrots, lettuce and strawberries that have been planted.

Other days, students are weeding, composting, going on a nature hike, or cooking and trying new foods. 

A Bankbridge Elementary School student checks on the garden’s progress.

One popular lesson, called “roots and shoots” introduces students to how the food they eat grows—which ones grow on trees, in bushes, or in the ground. Afterward, the students eat food from the garden. The lesson seemed to be a success when one student confidently ordered another, “Eat your roots,” and indicated the carrots on the plate.

Composting is another interesting lesson for students. One teacher was concerned that her students would not be receptive to working with worms. But the students rose to the occasion. After learning why the worms are essential to composting, and how composting maintains valuable nutrients, they assisted Agee in naming the worms and helping to build a shelter to shield them from the classroom lights.

As part of their occupational therapy, some students work on knife skills using produce from the garden.

Teaching science and building a sense of responsibility

Paula Alber, a first-through-third grade special education teacher, was impressed with how well her students responded to the garden.

“My students felt a strong sense of responsibility for the garden,” Alber said. “Agee made a watering schedule for the garden and my students would not let me forget!”

In addition, Alber’s students made smoothies using spinach from the garden, and during the Super Bowl, they made a fresh salsa. Each student was responsible for adding an ingredient.

“This is a great program,” Alber said. “FoodCorps gave us science lesson plans to go along with our curriculum. I would definitely recommend this program to anyone interested in building a school garden project, or who is interested in adding new elements to an existing project.”

A Bankbridge Elementary School student harvests produce he helped to grow in the school’s courtyard.

FoodCorps statewide, nationwide

As a FoodCorps service member, Agee works with two schools in Gloucester County. Statewide, there are 12 FoodCorps AmeriCorps service members for the 2019-20 school year. Nationwide, FoodCorps is in 18 states and the District of Columbia. The mission of the program is to connect children with healthy food in schools. Service members work in school garden projects, teach lessons on healthy eating, and work to incorporate healthy foods into the school menu.

“At the beginning, it’s important to build relationships with the staff and to work with them to find the best ways to integrate the program into the school community,” Agee said. “Here at Bankbridge, they already had a robust courtyard garden and vegetable garden. They requested FoodCorps come in to help maintain them, and to collaborate with staff to get the students fully engaged with the gardens and discover ways to use them to support lessons, healthy eating, and behavior goals.”

Bankbridge may not always require FoodCorps service members. As with all development programs, the goal is to get to a point of sustainability on their own.

“The staff have so many other responsibilities and challenges,” Agee said. “There is definitely a commitment to having these gardens, but they need support. Since this is my primary responsibility, I can devote all my attention to developing projects and programs that bring the garden into the classroom and get the students into the garden.”

FoodCorps service members come from a variety of educational backgrounds, but the majority studied public health, social work, education, nutrition, or agriculture.

“We have people from all walks of life in the program, from recent college graduates to retirees,” Agee said. “But we are all passionate about teaching children to learn more about nature and getting them comfortable with it.”

As a service member, Agee must serve 1,700 hours between Aug. 1 and July 12. This is a full-time position, and Agee can often be found at Bankbridge during the school day as well as at night and on weekends. Service members receive a stipend and educational benefits as part of the AmeriCorps program.

Benefits of school garden projects

Regardless of how educators choose to pursue garden projects in their districts, the benefits are substantial.

From the North American Association for Environmental Education:

In addition to benefits such as cognitive functioning, physical activity, and improved cooperation among youth, school gardens may also provide an opportunity for enhanced science learning, particularly among elementary-aged children from low-income communities.

Researchers found that these benefits accrue when supplementary materials accompany garden visits and youth development, online teacher professional development, and other school resources. These resources include as complementary lessons related to nutrition, plant science, horticulture, and youth development.

To achieve similar positive effects in a school garden program, educators can incorporate hands-on gardening with group work, complementary lessons, and teacher development into their school gardening curriculum.

The evidence is clear: school garden projects have many benefits for students, staff, and community members.

Building beauty at Bankbridge Elementary School

By Cindy Fornes, school social worker

n enclosed courtyard at Bankbridge Elementary School five years ago. It was so depressing to look out at such a wonderful space with nothing but dead grass, struggling rose bushes and a faded picnic table. At the time, it was only used as a cut-through from one side of the building to the other. Occasionally, a staff member might eat their lunch there. It was a safe, contained area that had so much potential for our students—especially in the nice weather—and I knew that we could do something special with the space.

The extended summer school year started, and I wanted to make the courtyard a fun and relaxing place for everyone. I talked with teachers Jennifer Hansbury and Alyssa Cop because I knew they would be eager to take this on as a summer project. We worked together to brainstorm ideas and developed our “dream plan.”

I contacted the teacher at our Career Center, which is a special needs program that helps with grounds maintenance, and the students came and pulled out some of the dead bushes and shaped up the ones we could salvage. Seeing activity in the space, people began to volunteer items such as pavers, a pond and professional gardening services.

One week after beginning work on the project, Samantha Coleman, a Master Gardener and the sister of an interpreter at Bankbridge, showed up with a truckload of salvage perennials to donate and helped plant them. That week, we also dug out around the entire perimeter of the courtyard: it was a muddy mess. Our principal at the time, Guy Davidson, was apprehensive by the looks of it, but we showed him our plans and promised it wouldn’t require much money at all, and that it would be usable by the end of summer.

Our goal was to make the courtyard as kid-friendly as possible and to have the students help out as much as they could. After all, it was their place. The plants we used were all sensory based: the students could smell, touch, taste and see them. The students helped plant everything. They even helped the Career Center students lay pavers for the patio. A single vison became a schoolwide project overnight. It was amazing to see the therapeutic benefits of being outside, connecting with nature, and the serenity the courtyard brought to staff and students alike. The fish in the pond became members of our community that everyone wanted to help care for and visit. Overnight, it seemed, more than a dozen monarch butterflies made the courtyard their home. One student discovered a praying mantis that has taken up residence, and now they lay their eggs there.

After seeing how much the students loved the courtyard garden as a respite and a place to plan and learn, we moved on to the next project: the vegetable garden. The staff and students at Bankbridge Regional woodshop helped by building the garden beds that our students helped to design. The horticulture department at the high school provided guidance and supplies. 

At this point, we became aware of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension grant and applied. Rutgers provided us with two more raised beds for the vegetable garden. In addition, we applied for a FoodCorps service member to help us integrate the garden more fully into the daily working of the school. We knew that both our projects were a huge undertaking and would require a lot of work and attention that we might not have during the regular school year. In addition, we wanted to expand garden education to our students.

The gardens have had an amazing impact on our students and our staff. Samantha Coleman, the Master Gardener volunteer, was so moved by the project and how it benefited our students that she asked how she could work in the district. She is now a full-time instructional aide.

Since that time, we have added so many elements to the courtyard garden and the vegetable garden. I love every second that I am able to look out the window and see a student playing the instruments, tasting herbs, looking in awe at the fish and butterflies. Here, they are truly able to forget about any other worries and just be one with nature.

Resources to bring the green to your school

New Jersey is the Garden State, so it stands to reason that we make the most out of every opportunity to “bring the green” financially and environmentally to our schools and our students.

There are many grants and programs available to assist educators interested in creating, expanding, or even maintaining a school garden, but it takes a lot of searching to find the right program and apply. Below are a few resources to help you make the most of your garden project.

FoodCorps

FoodCorps seeks to connect children to healthy food in school so they can lead healthier lives and reach their full potential. For more information, go to foodcorps.org.

SNAP-Ed

New Jersey SNAP-Ed, a part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is a nutrition and physical activity program aimed at teaching residents how to make healthy, budget-friendly food choices and lead more active lives.

School-based resources are coordinated by three groups that have divided the state into regions. Zufall Health runs the SNAP-Ed program in Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Sussex and Warren counties. Contact Jennifer Salt, Program Director at jsalt@zufallhealth.org or 973-891-3421.

Community Food Bank of New Jersey offers programs in Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Passaic, Salem and Union counties. Contact snaped@cfbnj.org or 908-355-3663 ext. 526.

The Rutgers Cooperative Extension coordinates programs for Burlington, Gloucester, Camden and Mercer counties. Contact them at njaes.rutgers.edu/snap-ed or 856-224-8034.

NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Grant

The NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education makes it possible for public school employees to receive grants that will help them bring creative ideas to life.

The only foundation of its kind in New Jersey, the Hipp Foundation supports initiatives to promote excellence in education. More than $2.1 million in grants for innovative educational projects that represent a bold, fresh approach by public school employees has already been awarded. Apply for a Hipp grant and bring your innovative ideas to life at njea.org/hipp.

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org.

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