POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2010:
Veggie Tales. “We’ve lost the ability to properly eat,” said Steve Eberle, community food and garden coordinator for Tulsa’s Indian Heath Care Resource Center. “We’ve been convinced that processed food is the same as real food. We have to educate people to buy a bag of potatoes rather than a box of potatoes.”
Typically, kids walking into the classroom after digging around in the dirt outside would result in an unhappy teacher. But this mentality is slowly being uprooted as Tulsa area students are being allowed to dig in to some new additions to many schools' landscapes -- school gardens.
"The kids have never seen a plant cycle from seed to table," said Steve Eberle, community food and garden coordinator for Tulsa's Indian Health Care Resource Center. "That's what we are now being able to show them."
And thousands of students are being able to see this transformation as more schools set aside plots of land to create their own science experiments. The Indian Health Care Resource Center alone has donated supplies, money and manpower for more than ten area schools since last year along with a list of 10 more to install at schools this year. And the IHCRC is not the only entity stepping in to encourage students' growth through the growth of these gardens.
"We're now teaching 1,100 kids a day between (Eugene Field Elementary School) and Rosa Parks (Elementary School)," said Ayschia Saiymeh, community outreach director and educator of Global Gardens, a non-profit organization that has partnered with the two schools to create the gardens. "We've kind of crested on this wave of a trend, which is bringing gardens to school and thinking about food and where it comes from. People are becoming cognoscente of this idea."
This acceptance of the program is especially important for a generation that lacks an understanding in healthy eating habits.
"Our students have not eaten fresh fruits and vegetables," Saiymeh said. "They didn't even know where they came from because there was not a grocery store in this part of town."
And health science is not only important for academics, but also for a healthy future, Eberle said.
"We've lost the ability to properly eat," he said. "We've been convinced that processed food is the same as real food. We have to educate people to buy a bag of potatoes rather than a box of potatoes."
McClain High School in north Tulsa has been in need of this kind of program, Eberle said, lying within one of three zip codes in the Tulsa area where individuals are 40 percent more likely to develop diabetes and heart disease and have a life expectancy rate 14 years less than other areas.
Last spring, through donations and grants, the school was able to revamp its greenhouse and garden that had been sitting dormant for almost five years. Now, students use the garden to dive into environmental and health sciences lessons.
"I don't know if they understand the seriousness of them being able to get future jobs through the lessons in the garden," said Ebony Johnson, McClain High School's principal. "Right now, they are just loving what they do."
Science is not the only subject being explored in the gardens, said Global Garden educator at Rosa Parks Elementary School Maggie Regan. Students work on signs and art projects and write stories about their adventures in the gardens. Global Gardens' after-school program filled with middle school children at Rosa Parks has even created a newspaper telling others about what they learned while working the soil.
Classes are also allowed to pick themes for their gardens. Regan said one class chose an international theme where students planted vegetables from various countries, such as Asian cabbage and Japanese onions, and learned about the culture of those areas of the world.
These colorful art projects and various flowers and vegetables can be seen at Eugene Field Elementary School where the affects of the garden have been branching out into the surrounding community. But the roots of the garden took hold years ago in another urban environment -- New York City.
While teaching science in Harlem, Heather Oakley realized she needed to get in touch with her own creative side to motivate children to learn.
"I saw all the challenges students faced in school," the founder of Global Gardens said. "We were all trying so hard to engage kids, but I think the answer in bettering education is asking what do you want to do and building off of that."
After moving to Tulsa, Oakley spoke with the principal at Eugene Field Elementary School about the possibility of furthering education through a school garden next to the building.
"I basically talked with her for one minute about it and she said let's do it," she said.
Now, four years later, the garden has flourished to become a part of the community with families and volunteers taking part in helping the children create their own oasis. Students' test scores have risen and families enjoy taking trips to the garden on the weekends. This is critical to a school where 75 percent of children have had a family member in the justice system and 99 percent of the students are on a free or reduced lunch plan.
"But statistics are just statistics," Saiymeh said. "You'd think they'd end up in the same situation, ... but being empowered gives kids the chance to make a change in their lives. It's empowering to know that you can take this plot of land and make it something beautiful."
Those beautiful creations, from cucumbers to tomatoes to radishes, are also being sold at the nearby Westside Harvest Market, a non-profit grocery store created through Global Gardens and First United Methodist Church, which provides healthy, low-cost groceries in an area often referred to as a "food desert" for its lack of food options. Cooking classes and Global Gardens' after-school program, created for students who have graduated from the elementary school and wish to continue working in the garden, are also held in the market. The market also hosts a free health clinic on Wednesdays for the surrounding community.
The desire to empower children has been the driving force behind various initiatives to create similar gardens across the country. One national group, the Green Education Foundation, included young gardeners at Rosa Parks Elementary School in a national PSA last spring.
"It encouraged that sense of pride and ownership the kids already had with the garden," Regan said.
Eberle said he agrees that building students' self-esteem is the biggest piece of the gardening projects.
"The benefit isn't feeding a family," he said. "It's saving a child. They're creating something in nature and that's a huge accomplishment. In the garden, you achieve everyday."
The garden also provides a place for students to step away from the noise of what can sometimes be a chaotic life, what Eberle calls "greenhouse therapy."
"It's a peace they might not get at home or in the streets," he said.
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