The Teaching Garden program, supported nationally through grants from the American Heart Association (AHA), was created to combat child obesity and encourage healthy eating among first to fifth grade students.
According to the AHA’s website, the program is intended to “teach children how to plant seeds, nurture growing plants, harvest produce and ultimately understand the value of good eating habits.”
St. John the Evangelist Parish School, Greenfield, got involved in the program three years ago when two teachers applied for the AHA grant. The school had already begun experimenting with two raised garden beds on the school property, but needed additional funding and resources.
The AHA program, which supplies teaching tools and planning materials in addition to funding, provided a solid framework for a more robust student gardening curriculum.
Tim Nikolai, senior community health director at the AHA’s Southeast Wisconsin chapter, said the lack of healthy eating habits among children has risen to the level of a national crisis.
“In our research, kids are not getting the cardiovascular-healthy diet that they should,” Nikolai said. “We know that getting people early exposure to fruits and vegetables helps them feel more comfortable and more likely to continue eating them throughout their lives. We give them hands-on exposure and experience with them and build those healthy habits for a lifetime.”
The AHA partners with local philanthropists and foundations to sponsor the Teaching Garden program. The Nicholas Family Foundation provided some of the funding for four teaching gardens throughout the greater Milwaukee area, including the one at St. John the Evangelist.
Nikolai said the grant application from St. John the Evangelist stood out.
“They really had a great committee of teachers and parents and students who were eager to work on it,” he said.
Mary Laidlaw-Otto, principal of St. John the Evangelist, said the program is an effective way to encourage students to eat more nutritiously and to incorporate fresh produce into their diets. She also sees the gardening experience as a way of teaching students how to live out important aspects of their Catholic faith.
“So much of faith is about teaching children about respect, and respect for everything as a gift from God. Who are we as Catholics? We are a people who are respectful of everyone and everything, and this allows us to teach respect for the earth and for our bodies,” Laidlaw-Otto said.
Nikolai said the Teaching Garden program impacts many aspects of a student’s experience.
“It’s the physical garden that everybody can see, of course, everything from the planter boxes to the dirt to the seeds to an irrigation system, but it’s also, less visible, is when it comes to the curriculum, to bring the content into the classroom,” Nikolai said.
The teaching staff at St. John the Evangelist has incorporated the garden project into multiple areas of the curriculum, including science, math, cooking and health. They use the space creatively, and reading and art classes are sometimes held in the garden.
The garden also has a designated prayer corner, including some seating and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Laidlaw-Otto believes this outdoor prayer space has enhanced students’ understanding of prayer.
“One thing we focus on here, particularly with this generation of students who are so engaged technologically, is that they don’t know how to be alone, they don’t know how to quiet their minds and hearts and put themselves into a prayerful mode. I think the garden is one way we can support that — that quiet place to be,” said Laidlaw-Otto. “We are teaching them that lesson that prayer comes in a variety of different forms and in many different places.”
Produce from the garden not used in the classroom is shared with the parish at large. Parishioners are welcome to stop by the garden and harvest ripe produce whenever they choose, and baskets of produce are offered in the narthex of the church after all Masses.
Nikolai has noticed the important role the parish has played in making the St. John the Evangelist garden a success.
“It’s really worked at St. John’s because the parish has been there to help take care of it over the summer, as well as enjoy some of the extra produce that comes out of it throughout the summer, so it’s been a really good connection there,” Nikolai said.
The school and the parish are committed to ensuring the teaching garden project is sustainable. The students do several fundraising events throughout the year, and a plan is in place for additional fundraising if the grant funding from the AHA does not continue. School families support the garden project throughout the summer, coming to weed and water.
Laidlaw-Otto says she has seen the students’ interest in gardening and healthy eating, developed through the teaching garden program, spread to their home and family lives as well.
“An interesting thing to us is that it’s not just that our students (who) participate in the garden here, but we’re hearing more and more kids talk about gardening at home. Their families think, ‘What can we do in our own backyard?’” said Laidlaw-Otto.