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VOL. 128 | NO. 163 | Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Organic Education

Teaching Garden connects children with food

By Michael Waddell

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Bethel Grove Elementary School of Memphis marked the opening of its American Heart Association Teaching Garden recently with a Plant Day Celebration and ribbon-cutting ceremony that included garden crafts, music and physical activity education.

Bethel Grove fifth-graders Justin Holloway, from left, JaDarius Nesbit and Douglas Gardner fill a wheelbarrow at the Bethel Grove Elementary School Teaching Garden.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“We see this as a great opportunity for the students, the school and the community,” said Bethel Grove principal Audrean Bond-Jones, who explained that the school’s recent healthy living initiative also includes providing healthier lunch options and more emphasis on physical education. “There is an air of excitement with the kids because gardening is a new experience for most of them.”

The school welcomed guest speaker Spencer McMillin, an instructor from L’Ecole Culinaire and personal chef to Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, at the Aug. 16 event.

“As a culture we are the second-richest, but we are also the second-unhealthiest,” said McMillin, who is also involved with the new Green Machine bus, a mobile food market that travels to Memphis food deserts. “My focus is on educating people about healthier eating habits, gardening and organic vegetables.”

Nearly one in three American children are overweight or obese, according to the American Heart Association, with American eating habits leading to modern-day “malnutrition” due to diets filled with too many sodas and overly processed foods. French fries are the most common source of vegetables consumed by children and make up one-fourth of their overall vegetable intake; juice, which may lack important fiber found in whole fruits, accounts for 40 percent of children’s daily fruit intake.

McMillin is encouraged by similar gardens that are sprouting up at schools across the city.

“Gardening is fun. I grew up with a garden, and just pulling the potatoes out of the ground was like a treasure hunt,” McMillin said. “The more connected you are to your food, the more likely you are to eat it.”

McMillin touts using better quality ingredients, such as canola or olive oil for the good Omega-3 fatty acids instead of vegetable oils, along with organic meats, veggies, fruits and even flour.

There are now more than 40 school gardens in the area, according to Stephan Leonard, farm manager educator with Shelby County Schools, who oversaw the construction and setup of Bethel Grove garden as well as many others around town.

“We try to get the kids out there growing their own foods and get them in the mindset of choosing better items to put on their menus,” said Leonard, who hopes the gardens help to address the problems of obesity and diabetes within the community. “The kids learn lifetime skills so they can provide for themselves by growing their own urban gardens right where they live instead of relying on food to be transported in from other areas.”

The plants in the garden were grown from seeds donated by Lowe’s Home Improvement, and Cigna HealthCare sponsored the event, marking the second Teaching Garden the company has helped to create at a local school. Last year Cigna partnered with the American Heart Association for a similar event at Charjean Elementary School.

“We know that research shows that kids who get the chance to actually grow plants and understand the process from planting the seeds to nurturing the plants to harvesting then they are going to eat more fruits and vegetables, and ultimately it will improve their nutrition habits and their health,” said Chuck Utterback, Cigna director of contacting, who believes Cigna will continue to sponsor at least one new school garden each year.

The AHA Teaching Garden was founded by Kelly Meyer and was created using science and nutrition guidelines coupled with information from gardening and education experts. The program combines nutrition education with garden-based learning and is a real-life laboratory where students learn how to plant seeds, nurture plants, harvest produce and ultimately understand the value of good eating habits.

The American Heart Association is currently looking for opportunities and sponsors for future school garden projects in areas of the city that do not enjoy good access to fruits and vegetables.

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