The plants in the MFL MarMac school garden at the Monona Center are ripening, much to the delight of garden club members who meet each Monday evening to care for the garden, pick produce and participate in taste testing and other fun activities.
Watching the kids discover what a seed or small plant has turned into is always fun, said teacher Roberta Hass, who helped organize the first school garden 20 years ago with fellow teachers Bona Dean Feller and Jean Ann Dillman.
“We wanted some type of agricultural connection,” she said, explaining that, even then, fewer kids in the district were growing up on a farm. “We did a dairy trip and went to the grain elevator to promote the agricultural things in the community so that people can see what we have here.”
Although the garden has since doubled in size, the goal is still to connect students with something they might not otherwise experience. Of the six who helped out Monday night, Hass believed only one had a garden at home.
Hass said 45 students and parents are in the garden club, with around 8 to 10 showing up each week. She and Felicia Pinto, the Iowa Food and Fitness staff member for the district, help direct the participants as to what needs to be done.
When the students arrived Monday evening, Pinto set them to work weeding, making sure only weeds, and not plants, were plucked.
The kids were then given the go-ahead to begin picking the ripe produce. They found a little bit of everything—tomatoes, broccoli, kohlrabi, cucumbers, kale and beans.
When things ripen during the summer, Hass said the students get to take the fresh produce home with them. Once school is back in session, some items will go to the salad bar or into other lunch items. The classes also try foods, like salsa, made from garden ingredients. The 2nd graders make stone soup, said Hass, with a variety of vegetables.
After all the ripened produce was picked, the kids gathered in a semi-circle to share their finds so that each could take home an equal variety.
During that time, Hass also cut up a kohlrabi to share with the group. While two asked for a second piece, most weren’t big fans.
Following that, the kids helped Pinto plant some basil. They then moved on to the night’s taste testing activity, a one-bite salad, which consisted of a selection of tomatoes, cheese, basil and pesto on a toothpick. The kids gamely tried everything, but one admitted, “It was okay, but without the tomato, it would have been better.”
Although some of the foods they pick from the garden might not be their favorite now, Pinto assured the kids that won’t always be the case.
“Your taste buds are always changing,” she explained. “Sometimes it takes seven tries before you like a food. You might not like the tomato this year, but you might next year.”
After taste testing, Pinto sent the kids on a scavenger hunt, looking for garden foods.
Hass said Iowa Food and Fitness began helping with the garden last year and that it’s been a great addition.
“They learn something every week,” she said, adding that the garden has evolved throughout the years to meet the needs of the students who participate.
The kids, she said, especially enjoy watching things grow big.
“It’s fun to see their eyes light up when stuff develops and they get to take it home,” she said. “They love to see how big the sunflowers will get.”
One summer, she said, a sunflower got eight feet tall. They’ve been trying to replicate that height ever since, but haven’t quite gotten there.
While helping with the garden is a special time for the students, Hass said their parents are also a big help.
“We wouldn’t get this done if not for the adults,” she said.
Story and photos from Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times, 7/29/14