From Thomasville Road, passersby can see the sunflowers popping up from the center of the car loop at the School of Arts and Sciences.
They’ll likely notice the flowers at the edge of the fence or the watering canisters lined up near the gate. Maybe they’ll get a glance of the raised beds filled with seasonal vegetables – green beans, squash, tomatoes.
During the school year, when it’s not raining, they’ll see children busily tending the roughly third of an acre, partially shaded by two large oak trees. The elementary-aged students visit the garden as part of their curriculum for 35 minutes a week.
“I feel like it’s something different that we do here,” said garden teacher Cassie Dillman. “I want them to come outside and feel like they’re in this magical place in the garden. For them to be able to come out and just be in nature, I feel like is so important for them.”
Classes come outside and work. They water, weed and move plants. They get their hands dirty; Dillman has a no glove policy. While they’re working, they munch on veggies. They make herb burritos, filling lettuce leaves with parsley and basil, rolling them up and eating them.
At the end of class, they eat something that’s growing in the garden. Then they talk about what it tastes like and whether they enjoy it.
Dillman also takes the vegetables harvested in the garden and creates recipes. The elementary students were introduced to eight recipes the last school year. The middle schoolers who take cooking as an optional class were introduced to 12 new recipes. Dillman thinks of it more as a hands-on health class.
“They’re learning science; they’re learning how to read; they’re learning how to write; they’re learning math,” said Dillman, who’s been at the school for four years. “But I feel like we aren’t teaching them how to eat and that’s something they’re going to do three times a day forever.”
Learning where food comes from and picking what they’re going to eat makes the students more likely to eat those healthy foods.
“We give our kids vegetables, but there’s something about their school doing it that’s extra special,” said Halle Van Oss, whose kindergartener and third grader attend the school. “They’ve tried more vegetables than they would have because they’ve tried them at school.”
The full cycle of growing, picking then cooking food is what excites fourth-grader Sarah Ann Stafford. She doesn’t normally like getting her hands dirty, but she likes gardening and cooking.
“It’s big and you get to work in the garden and we get to cook and plant flowers,” said the 10-year-old. “It’s fun when you see them grow and water them and pick them and eat them.”
In the last year, the garden expanded with the backing of a $40,000 hunger relief grant from Walmart. Dillman, with help from parent volunteers, was able to transform the area in the center of the car loop into the garden oasis. She bought the fence, raised beds, dirt, seeds and tools. She also was able to buy new materials for the cooking class.
“I wanted (Walmart) to understand that growing food in a garden and having kids eat it every single week is creating healthy eating habits for them and giving them food,” she said of the grant that is typically given to food banks.
The garden isn’t done growing. Dillman wants to put in 20 more raised beds, fruit trees, more herbs and an irrigation system.
With the grant, Dillman also was able to create garden events, where she hands out a recipe students have created in class. With it comes a bag of ingredients so parents can go home and make it as a family.
“Garden events are a way for the kids to take home what they’re doing in class and show their parents what they’ve been making in gardening class,” Dillman said. “It’s also a way just to get the parents out into the garden to see what their kids are growing and to see what we have going on in class.”
There have been four garden events. At the last one this school year, families sampled tabbouleh, a Mediterranean vegetarian salad. Joyful Noise Family Farm brought chicks, goats, rabbits, other animals and “bunny berries” for fertilizing plants.
Dillman is planning one more. At that one, she hopes community members will stop by and see what’s happening in the garden.
Contact Ashley White at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AshleyyDi.
Recipes from Dillman’s class