Meeshel Tarsa kneels on the ground and digs into the rich Pennsylvania earth with her bare hands. Surrounded by 25 wide-eyed fourth-grade students at Southeast Elementary School in the City of Lebanon, Meeshel pulls out the first of eight potatoes she finds as she carefully moves the soil beneath the spot where the children had planted one of many seed potatoes three months earlier.
Meeshel and her husband, Mike, together with family friend Ric Arnold-Paine, are running a program at Southeast Elementary to teach the children the value of growing organic, wholesome and delicious food. In the autumn of 2007, while Mike was flying home from Germany after a business trip, he read Lufthansa’s airline publication and came across an article about chef and food activist Alice Waters, who wrote the book Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea. Waters began a program for schoolchildren at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, in 1995 and instructed the students in all aspects of growing, harvesting, and preparing organically grown produce.
Waters’ idea fascinated Mike, and when he returned to Lebanon, he mentioned the book to Meeshel and excitedly told her, “We could do this here.” Meeshel was enthusiastic about the idea but wondered how such a program would work in this part of the country, where the growing season is so much shorter than in California and the children would be on summer vacation during part of harvesting time. Still, they loved the idea and decided to visit Meeshel’s aunt in Oakland, California. From there the couple toured and volunteered for two days at the one-acre plot at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley.
By the time the Tarsas returned to Pennsylvania, they were passionate about bringing a similar project to their hometown, and they approached the Lebanon City School Board with the idea. The board was enthusiastic and decided the program should begin in the spring of 2009 at Southeast Elementary School on East Pershing Avenue, because it was one of the few schools in the city that had the space to sustain a large vegetable garden. The couple gained the support of Southeast’s principal, Michael Habecker, as well as many of the teachers, who saw the potential of teaching the students to appreciate the value of growing and eating fresh vegetables.
Principal Habecker offered 45 minutes every Friday morning when the Tarsas and Arnold-Paine could instruct the school’s fourth-graders on how to plant, maintain and harvest an organic vegetable garden. The Tarsas had been gardening for about 15 years, and Ric had been raised on a farm, so his knowledge was a great asset. The children were on different levels when it came to their gardening knowledge. Some children’s families had gardens at home; others did not even know that plants came from seeds. When Mike asked the class what they thought of when he said the word “vegetables,” several of the children shouted, “Walmart!” Nevertheless, the three instructors’ excitement for the program outweighed any difficulties they might encounter.
The Tarsas built two composting work bins and showed the children the technique of vermicomposting, using red wiggler worms. The advantage of this method versus regular composting is that there is much less maintenance involved. The compost does not have to be turned, as the worms do the work, and there is no need to manage the brown versus green ratio of material or the temperature — the worms take care of everything. “We also enjoy the fact that it teaches the kids about worms, which they love, and it adds a class-pet aspect to the project,” says Meeshel. “It teaches ecology so they are having an incredible lesson in science without realizing it.”
It is a nice-size garden, covering about half an acre. The children grow herbs, strawberries, radishes, tomatoes, chard, beans, beetroot, potatoes, kale, cabbage and squash, and they are encouraged to eat all the food they harvest. Registered volunteers assist the Tarsas and Arnold-Paine with the ongoing project as they teach the children how to double dig the soil (aerates the deeper layers of the soil and improves drainage), gather the soil for testing and build raised beds.
Before school let out for the summer in 2010, Meeshel and Mike arranged a Kitchen Day for the fourth-graders. Some of the students harvested the salad vegetables, cleaned them and used plastic boards and knives to cut the vegetables. Others picked herbs to make a “goddess dressing” that Meeshel had served in her own local restaurant eight years earlier. Meeshel says the gardening program is “lots of work, but the children make it all worthwhile. One boy said that he had never had salad before, and that comment alone makes it all worthwhile.” Meeshel wanted to make the meal a learning experience also, and she discussed the importance of families eating together at home.
The program is a success on many different levels, and not only for the fourth-graders. Weather permitting, second-grade teachers bring their art-class students to the garden to sketch the vegetables. The school psychologist brings children outside to sit in the garden when it is quiet instead of talking in an office setting. Students from other grades feel that the garden belongs to them, too. “Last year,” notes Meeshel, “the student council decided that instead of buying gifts for teachers, money would be given to the gardening project to buy fruit trees to plant by the vegetable gardens.”
To address the problem of food harvesting during the children’s summer break from school, Meeshel, Mike and Ric tend the garden each Wednesday evening and Friday morning, together with any of their students who want to work in the garden, accompanied by a responsible adult. Volunteers from the community are invited also, and neighbors who stop by to ask questions about the program often help pick vegetables as they chat.
All the harvested vegetables are shared among the children and volunteers, and the Tarsas have recently begun selling produce to a local restaurant, The Black Gryphon in Elizabethtown. Proceeds go into the project.
Other schools in the area have expressed an interest in starting gardens for their students. Meeshel, Mike and Ric are willing to offer their advice and knowledge to any interested schools. “Some of the schools in the district do not have the space for a garden,” comments Meeshel, “but if they only have window boxes for their vegetables, it is still going to teach the children the value of growing and harvesting their own food.”
The project has brought out all sorts of unforeseen benefits. Many of the Southeast Elementary students are Hispanic, and often live in three-generational homes. The children have little in common with their grandparents, who often do not speak English well or at all. Some of the grandparents had gardens in Puerto Rico, and the children’s enthusiasm for the garden project has brought some Southeastern students and their grandparents closer as they began working together on their own gardens at home.
The project has also brought out hidden talents in the children. Meeshel recalls, “I was the kind of kid that had to read something over and over again until it clicked. Lots of children are like that, but this is a program where they can all shine. They don’t have to be A students; all we demand from them is respect.”
It is obvious to anyone watching the children work in the garden that each of them is gaining a positive experience from the project. They do not realize it yet, but the lessons that they are learning from the Edible Schoolyard are teaching them healthy eating habits and a respect for the earth that they will carry into adulthood.
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