by Lee Manahan
Marshfield is currently in the midst of an ambitious educational experiment. Throughout the year, at two of its five elementary schools, students are actively involved in an organic community garden project. They learn how to prepare the soil, plant seedlings, tend crops, and eventually harvest fresh vegetables and herbs. Some of what they grow is served in the school cafeteria. A creative solution for the surplus of produce, which is especially bountiful during the summer vacation months, is sold by the students, their families, and school personnel at the Marshfield Farmers’ Market.
Originally led by teachers Bruce Frost and Jeff Dunn, the garden program, known as Marshfield Roots originated at South River Elementary. When Dunn moved to Martinson, another school in town, he created a second program there. The two teachers continued to collaborate, and with guidance from educators at Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset, the gardens at both schools thrived. The success of these projects has inspired the crew which plans to break ground in the coming year.
The program requires collaboration among school staff, parent volunteers, and, most importantly, students. The primary focus is for the children to learn about the food that appears on their plates. For example, toward the end of the 2013-2014 school year, the second grade class at South River planted potatoes. Naturally, when you remove a group of 7- and 8-year olds from their classroom and ask them to go outside and dig in the dirt on a lovely spring day, there is going to be some excitement. “I really liked getting my hands dirty, “said Brooke English. The students seemed most excited about the fact that the potatoes were destined for the cafeteria as French fries.
At the same time, the second graders could see the connections between the plants in their garden and the food on their trays. James Teeple said, “My favorite part about helping in the garden is weeding. It is important—so the roots don’t get strangled and the plants can get nutrients.” His classmate, Brian Sullivan, added, “Plants help us breathe and I love eating mashed potatoes!” This is the beauty of school gardens. They create a sense of ownership and pride—the type of pride that comes from creating something of value that is enjoyed by an array of people.
Amy Scolaro, Principal of South River School, explained how the garden program fits into the curriculum. “Academic experiences for students at all grade levels are enriched … In addition to learning about individual plants and the process of organic gardening, students learn about natural resources, nutrition, and the impact people have on the environment. It is a wonderful opportunity.”
Nancy Belezos leads harvesting efforts of several South River School farmers as they uncover a bounty of potatoes.
“Students, teachers, and parents are involved in all aspects of the gardens.” -Jeff Dunn
“My favorite part about helping in the garden is weeding. It is important…so the roots don’t get strangled and the plants can get nutrients.”-James Teeple
Nancy Belezos, a South River School parent-volunteer who oversees the garden project, added, “There are many lessons to learn. For example, in the spring, the second graders plant potatoes in organic compost made from the cafeteria leftovers. Months later they return as third graders to harvest their potatoes and have the opportunity to eat them through the school lunch program. Before Thanksgiving, they’ll learn about the Pilgrims and visit Plimoth Plantation and see that behind each settler’s home there are raised-bed gardens—just like the beds at South River School.”
Both schools rely heavily on parent-volunteers like Belezos. “Students, teachers, and parents are involved in all aspects of the gardens,” said Dunn. “Every class plants specific crops and maintains their plots from beginning to end. During the summer, students and parents help to do all that is needed, including watering, weeding, harvesting, and preparing for market.” The commitment required to successfully tend these gardens can be time-consuming. Luckily there is a strong parental presence that recognizes the benefits. Without their year-round commitment, the gardens would not thrive.
Belezos, mother of a fourth grader and twin second-graders, sees the garden program as an important part of the school day. “It takes the indoor classroom experience and applies those lessons to the outside world. The garden classroom [invites] our children to use all their senses to connect to their curriculum and to the cycles of life.”
So what happens to these crops once they have been harvested? Much of what is grown is served in the school cafeterias. However, throughout the summer, the schools also sell the produce at the Marshfield Farmers’ Market. Staffed with volunteers and students alike, the Marshfield Roots booth has been known to sell out of merchandise quickly. Market Manager Lorrie Dahlen commented, “Once customers know about them, [they] make a point to stop by weekly.”
“We’ve also sold our produce to Hola in Marshfield and made donations to the Marshfield Food Pantry,” said Dunn. So far, the demand for this product exceeds the ability to produce. But make no mistake: this is still a relatively young program, and there is plenty of room for growth.
Start-up costs for both gardens came primarily through grants from the Marshfield Education Foundation. Support from teachers, administration, students and parents has been widespread— and vital. But are the gardens financially self-sufficient? As of right now, they are not. Despite the fact that all of the labor is done on a volunteer basis, there are still operational costs where actual money is required. The schools’ PTOs have pitched in, and various local businesses and community organizations—such as Copeland Lumber, Garretson Cranberry, and the Marshfield Agricultural Commission—have lent a hand as well. Such support, as well as financial donations from various members of the school community, has kept the program moving forward. “The chance for students, staff, and families to work together with others in the Marshfield community on such a worthwhile project is incredibly special and exciting!” said Scolaro.
The gardens are designed not only to be a teaching tool but also to promote healthy eating habits. By being involved in the growing process, the students develop a curiosity in “their” food and are much more likely to try something new. “We’ll continue to serve things like spinach salad and roasted herb potatoes at school to further encourage kids to make healthy choices,” said Dunn.
“One of the most important aspects of this project,” Dunn continued, “is to educate children on where food comes from and the work that goes into growing it.” Looking at the bigger picture, Dunn said, “Our goal is not only to grow produce, but to grow our students’ exposure to agriculture, farming, and ecology.” Through their booth at the Farmers’ Market, the children are also exposed to the way our market system operates. They get to witness first-hand how their labor can be converted to capital.
The school garden program continues to expand, despite considerable challenges. After the departure of Frost, who moved to a different school system, it was unclear who would oversee the program. South River Elementary is now creating a Garden Organization, through which parents will partner with school personnel not only to continue the original garden mission, but expand it into a living classroom. “We want to incorporate it into the daily life of the South River School community,” said Belezos. This past summer, the team designed a shed, set up the basic structure of the greenhouse, and installed a rain collection/drip irrigation system.
What the project needs now is committed support. “The educational rewards and opportunity to keep the garden going and growing are too great to lose,” said Belezos. “We need our students’ families to help keep this vision together.”
At the farmers’ market, Dahlen, who has observed the program since its start, is looking forward to expanded offerings from Marshfield Roots in the future. “The greenhouse will add a new season for them and help them better utilize the school year in conjunction with the market,” she noted. She also stressed the importance of family participation. “The volunteers are really doing their best to make it work, but more help is needed.”
This is an impressive program. With continued support from families and volunteers, it should continue to flourish and grow, and more kids will have the opportunity to participate in the cultivation of their own food. A small investment of time and labor creates seemingly endless opportunities to advance knowledge for students of all ages.
Lee Manahan is a graduate of both South River Elementary School and Martinson (it was the middle school in his day). Neither contained a garden and he deeply regrets never having the opportunity to get his hands dirty.