Kids reap what they sow in gardens growing at Stanislaus County schools

Lanae Grier, 10, is a whirlwind in the school garden.

She hands out shovels, plants zinnias, picks vegetables and pulls weeds. And she does it all after school, when other kids her age are apt to be at home in front of the computer or TV.

Lanae, a fifth-grader at Modesto's Eisenhut Elementary, doesn't mind pitching in to tend to the leafy cluster of raised beds made of recycled plastic that sit on the blacktop next to the school's parking lot. It's where she tried a radish for the first time.

It's where she learned about compost and how to work as part of a team. She enjoys the garden so much, she asked her mom to help her plant vegetables at home.

"It's really cool to see how plants grow," Lanae said. "A month later when something blooms, you can say 'I planted that.' "

Lanae isn't alone in her passion for gardening. Thanks to a variety of grants and donations, and growing alarm about childhood obesity, more kids are getting turned on to growing things at school.

At Eisenhut, children fill out employment applications to be part of the garden crew. They grow everything from

bok choy to heirloom tomatoes. At Empire Elementary, students are planting salad greens in wheelbarrows.

At Walter White elementary in Ceres, kids planted mushrooms, which worked into a lesson on macro- and microorganisms.

"There's not a single subject I can't teach in that space," fourth-grade teacher Jill-Marie Purdy said of the school's garden.

Math? Kids calculate the square footage of their garden. Language arts? Students write stories and poems about their garden. History? Children study California in the context of our state's rich agricultural heritage.

"We talk a lot with the kids about how much food is grown in the valley that feeds the world," said Noella Goodyear, an Eisenhut teacher who organizes students to work in the garden.

School gardens aren't new, especially in California. In the early 1990s, chef Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant collaborated with teachers at one of the city's middle schools to start the Edible Schoolyard program. Students grow, cook and eat their own healthy food.

Next, state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin promoted school gardens with a campaign called Garden in Every School to help students learn about fresh produce and sustainable agriculture.

Now, first lady Maria Shriver, in her crusade against childhood obesity, is promoting school gardens.

Funding followed. The state Department of Education in 2006 offered $15 million in grants for school gardens.

Big businesses and nonprofits give money, too. Eisenhut recently received $500 from United Health Group, a health care company, to teach students how to prepare healthy foods from the school's garden.

Locally, garden clubs and other organizations often give funds, time or help secure donations of plants, soil, etc. In Stanislaus County, members of California Woman for Agriculture are calling on businesses to provide olive oil and vinegar so students who grow salad greens in wheelbarrows can make dressings from scratch.

School gardens aren't without controversy. A piece in Atlantic Monthly earlier this year says school gardens rob students -- especially sons and daughters of migrant workers -- of hours they might have spent reading books or learning higher math, things their parents see as helping them attain a better life.

That argument doesn't hold water, said Anne Schellman of the University of California Cooperative Extension.

She should know. Her organization provides advice and curriculum to teachers who want to start school gardens. Lessons run the gamut. Think language arts (a book about a boy who learns to like tomatoes), nutrition (white, red and green veggies) and science (hypothesis, experiment, conclusion).

"What people don't realize is the garden can be used as an outdoor classroom," Schellman said.

Still, Schellman said, most students who work in school gardens do so before school, during recess and after school. The reason? There's not enough time in class.

"It's just not feasible during the regular school day," she said.

Schellman finds herself working mostly with after-school child-care programs such as the one at Eisenhut Elementary, in which students tend the garden with Goodyear, a special education teacher so dedicated to the effort she comes to school over the summer to weed and water.

Kids in the after-school program make snacks with the food they grow, such as pumpkin pancakes and Stone Soup (a nod to the book of the same name). They taste new foods, such as mandarin oranges and almonds in the hull, provided by the cooperative extension.

They even learn to like radishes, as Lanae did.

"I think school gardens are important because they help kids understand about food," said Lanae. "It feels good to actually grow something."