Sixth graders nurture wheelbarrow garden, grow community connections
After harvesting and cooking their produce, students ask for seconds of kale
How do you get notoriously finicky sixth graders to eat their leafy greens? Have them grow the vegetables themselves.
Students in Riverside have that unique opportunity through a hands-on gardening and nutrition class at Ysmael Villegas Middle School, with help from CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California Cooperative Extension Riverside County (a part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources).
“We have middle schoolers asking for seconds and thirds of kale – that's not something that's typical!” said Claudia Carlos, program supervisor for CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Riverside, which implements SNAP-Ed locally (the educational arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps).
Growing and tending kale, mint and snap peas in two wheelbarrow gardens on the Villegas campus, the second cohort of students capped their 12-week class with a cooking lesson. A simple recipe combining their kale with tomatoes, onions and coconut milk was a big hit.
“It's one thing to tell youth they should eat healthy, but not until they actually grow the food do they actually take a lot of pride in that food they've grown and harvested,” Carlos explained.
By the end of this school year, about 75 students (in three cohorts) will have taken the class, during which they explore career pathways in gardening, agriculture and nutrition – while cultivating new skills and healthy habits such as choosing nutritious snacks and incorporating exercise into their day. Techniques developed by the UC help encourage effective behavior change.
“In this exploratory class, I've learned how to plant, and take care of plants,” wrote one student, in evaluating the class. “I can use these skills later on in life most likely, and I also learned how to be more healthy.”
Teachers observed that other students also have taken steps to apply their new skills and knowledge.
“They become more confident in themselves and their abilities to make healthy choices for themselves and their families – and to advocate for their parents to buy that kale and actually eat it,” said Daisy Valdez, community education specialist for CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Riverside, who is helping teach the class.
Valdez also has been training Villegas teacher Kim Weiss, so that Weiss – a first-year full-time teacher – is empowered to teach future cohorts. Both Valdez and Weiss noticed that nearly all of the youth have been enthusiastic about getting their hands in the soil, watering and weeding regularly – even taking care of the “worm hotel.”
“Students are very invested in the plants, how they are doing and their well-being,” Weiss said. “They ask if they can come back to the class and help care for the plants and worms; students worry about who will take care of the plants and worms after they leave.”
In addition to basic gardening and cooking skills, the class also incorporates lessons about herbs and spices, beneficial insects and pollinators, and cultural dimensions of food. The kale cooking lesson, which recently took place during Black History Month, presented a chance to teach about African food and culinary traditions.
“It allows them to not just connect to the garden but also to connect to their peers and to connect to the world around them,” said Valdez, who added that the garden, planted in a pair of cheerful red wheelbarrows, also beautifies the campus and sparks conversations among their schoolmates about food systems.
The Villegas partnership with CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Riverside also benefits the entire school in other ways, with programs reaching hundreds of students and community members. In spring 2021, under Valdez's supervision, students created a “food access board” that shows how to obtain healthy and affordable food through CalFresh EBT, farmers markets, WIC and other resources.
The board, which has been set up in the library, cafeteria and lobby, is seen and used by students and family members. Valdez also engaged parents and the broader community by hosting gardening and nutrition workshops.
This year, Villegas students will have the opportunity to further deepen their cultural connections through a new Youth Participatory Action Research project, in which they explore their personal and family histories through the lens of a meaningful and healthy food item, practice or tradition. Youth will then share their findings with school peers and administrators.
As Carlos noted, these young people will not forget such engaging and immersive experiences with food any time soon. In their evaluations, many students wrote that they learned valuable lessons about compost, care for plants and insects, and healthy eating.
And, as one sixth grader said: “I also learned that kale and coconut milk is amazing!”