Schools to receive garden grant money

Shopping for ripe tomatoes, crisp lettuce, sweet grapes and crunchy carrots may soon be a thing of the past.

As early as next year, many of Merced County's children will be able to harvest these fruits and vegetables from their own school's garden.

The California Department of Educations has awarded $92,500 in grant money to 31 school and preschool sites in the county to help with instructional garden projects.

One of those schools is Atwater's Shaffer Elementary. Fourth grade teacher Jennifer McLoud, who applied for the grant for her school, said Shaffer received $2,500 to start a garden from scratch. "It's a brand-new project for us," she said.

McLoud said the school plans to build raised planting beds for each grade, allowing teachers to collaborate on what they want to do with their grade's space "so they can plan lessons around it."

The school also hopes to be able to use the garden as a muse for art students, inspiring them to sketch or paint what they see in the green and brown space.

With the grant money and some other fundraising dollars, McLoud said the garden area should be ready for planting in early spring. "Maybe before school gets out in June, we'll have a little something to harvest," she said.

Most of Merced County's grant money -- $37,500 -- is going to the area's 15 Head Start sites. Each preschool site will get $2,500 to start or maintain its own garden. "They learn so much from gardens," said Miriam Tcheng, Merced County Head Start Nutrition Services Manager. "It's wonderful."

Several Head Start campuses already host gardens, which have allowed preschool students to see plants develop, harvest their crops and try some kinds of fruits and vegetables for the first time.

Tcheng said some of the grant money will go to educating parents about the healthy options a garden can provide.

Which is music to Claudia Corchado's ears. Merced County's project coordinator for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, Corchado said the gardens will provide a valuable opportunity to introduce healthy, naturally grown foods into families' everyday meals.

"What better way (to fight obesity) than to be able to step outside and reach for a watermelon, grapes, squash or tomatoes instead of chips and cookies?" Corchado asked.

Tcheng said Merced County Head Start also wants to encourage parents to start community gardens themselves. "It ties in with food insecurity," she added.

Community gardens are often discussed by groups working on feeding lower-income communities, Corchado said. By educating and training families on how to start and maintain community gardens, "we will create an ongoing generation of availability to healthy environments right in their own back yards, she said."

The $92,500 given to Merced County schools was a portion of $15 million the CDE awarded as a part of AB1535, the California Instructional School Garden Program.

Others campuses that received funding in Merced County include Merced City School District's Ada Givens Elementary, Granada High School in Le Grand, McSwain School in rural Merced, two Hilmar elementary schools and all the Merced Union High School District sites.

Now, all these campuses need are grant dollars for low-calorie salad dressing.

Reporter Abby Souza can be reached at 209-385-2407 or