by Kelly Zimmerhanzel, FoodCorps Service Member
Remember that lettuce we planted back in April? Well, it grew! In June, we had the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at Litwin, Streiber, Stefanik, and Bowe come out into the garden to harvest their lettuce and plant fall crops including carrots, beets, and potatoes as part of our Salad Days and Harvest Days program. The program, created by Backyard Growers in Gloucester, gives every student involved a total of three garden visits and two seed-to-fork experiences over the course of the year. In April, each class comes out to the garden to plant lettuce seeds. The lettuce grows until June, when each class returns to harvest what they planted and sow the fall crops: potatoes, beets, and carrots. The next day, we all enjoy a student-grown salad taste test in the cafeteria. Each class returns to the garden in the September to harvest the fall crops, which are then roasted and taste-tested in the cafeteria.
Lettuce at the Bowe School Garden
Each class comes out to the garden for just 30 minutes to harvest and plant. First, they have to wash their hands. Then, we take them to the half of the bed that they planted and give each student a pair of scissors and assign them a square. Molly, Greta, or I will then demonstrate how to grab the top of the lettuce and snip it off with the scissors just above the soil, so our lettuce stays clean. We also show them how to snip off the roots of the lettuce if they accidentally pull them out and explain that is not the right way to do it because it gets dirt everywhere.
A student at Bowe cutting their lettuce
The kids put the harvested leaves in one of our harvest bins and keep harvesting until their square is completely denuded. When everyone is done harvesting, we move over to our washing station, where each student grabs a handful of lettuce, swishes it around in a bin full of water, and then moves it to a bin with holes to let it dry.
Students at Litwin washing their lettuce
Once all the lettuce is washed, we add it to the basket of our giant salad spinner. Molly, Greta, or I will put the top on the salad spinner and show the kids how to crank it. Each student gets to crank the salad spinner five times and then moves to the end of the line and we keep spinning it until the salad is dry. I like to ask the students or teachers if they know how to count in any languages other than English or Spanish, because those are the only two I know. Some of the kids immediately requested, “Spanish!” and a few even requested, “Spanglish!” so I counted one number in English and the next in Spanish! Many of the students and teachers shared their languages with me, including one student who counted in Khmer and a teacher who counted for us in Greek!
Greta helping students at Stefanik spin their lettuce
Students at Litwin admiring their dry lettuce
Once the lettuce is dried, we put it in a big bag so that we can put it in the refrigerator and serve it in the cafeteria the next day! Then, we head back to the bed and each student has to remove the lettuce roots and any weeds from their square, otherwise the lettuce will keep growing and choke out our fall crops! When the square is completely clear, we ask the students who are planting potatoes to dig a hole in the middle of their square. We give each student a potato and remind them to plant it with the eye (the sprouting part) up, so that the plant can grow. Finally, they gently sweep the soil over the potato.
Students at Streiber digging holes for their potatoes
For the students planting beets and carrots, the process is a little different. When the square is completely clear, we ask each student to make a 4x4 array of holes in their square by digging in their pointer finger to the first joint. Once each student has 16 evenly spaced holes in their square, we give them a pinch of beet or carrot seeds and instruct them to place one seed in each hole and return any extra seeds to us or ask us for extra seeds if they do not have enough. When all the seeds are in the holes, they gently sweep the soil over them to cover them up. At this point, the class is all done and can return inside!
A student at Streiber planting carrot or beet seeds
A student at Streiber planting carrots
A student at Stefanik planting beets
At Stefanik, we were lucky enough to have Hannah and Dana, two representatives from 88 Acres, one of our local vendors, come out to play a telephone with the kids and give them a sample of their Pumpkin Seed Butter.
88 Acres representative Hannah giving the kids samples of Pumpkin Seed Butter
Altogether, we harvested about 143 pounds of lettuce - 7 pounds from Litwin, 22 pounds from Streiber, 21 pounds from Stefanik, and a whopping 93 pounds from Bowe! The harvest at Bowe was on Monday, June 18th, the hottest day of the year so far. Despite more than half of the students being absent that day, and having to harvest in about half the time to avoid the heat of the afternoon, we managed to harvest all 93 pounds of lettuce!
The students were able to taste their lettuce in the cafeteria the day after we harvested. At Litwin and Streiber, we made a balsamic vinaigrette dressing with olive oil, dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, and a little honey. During every Taste Test, we allow the students to vote whether they disliked the dish, liked it, or loved it by dropping the backs of their stickers into the voting buckets. At Litwin, 30 percent of students disliked the salad, while 70 percent of students liked it or loved it! At Streiber, the results were even more positive; 27 percent of students disliked it and 73 percent of students liked it or loved it!
Molly and I showing off the lettuce before the Litwin Taste Test
At Stefanik and Bowe, we tried 88 Acres’ recipe for ranch using their Pumpkin Seed Butter. I’ll admit, I was skeptical of ranch made out of seed butter, but once I tried it, I was hooked. The kids seemed to like it too! At Stefanik, 33 percent of students disliked the salad, while 67 percent liked it or loved it! At Bowe, the results were even better; only 18 percent of students disliked it, while 82 percent of students liked it or loved it!
Although we didn’t manage to use all the lettuce in our taste tests, we made sure it didn’t go to waste. The extra lettuce from Litwin and Streiber was donated to Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen and at Stefanik and Bowe, Molly and I put the lettuce in individual produce bags, and during dismissal we handed it out to parents and students, who were excited to take home a little piece of their garden!
By Molly Burke, FoodCorps service member
Tuesday morning, Mrs. Gelonese’s class of first graders and I set out from Litwin for Luther Belden Farm, in Hatfield, to enjoy a dairy farm field trip donated to us by the New England Dairy and Food Council. Darryl and Lucinda Williams, the farm’s owners, introduced us to their many adorable calves and surprisingly large dairy cows, showed us how their cows are milked by a very precise robot, and made sure we left with a healthy appreciation for local food systems and goodies like stickers and Cabot cheese.
When I returned to Litwin, some 5th graders helped me put together tomato planters made from Home Depot buckets. McKinstry Farms and Harry Brandt from Bowe School generously donated the plants. Thanks, Harry and McKinstry!
Wednesday was one long exercise in self restraint as I prepared four dozen whole grain, lactose-free cupcakes and frosting for two end-of-year class parties for Litwin fifth graders. When people think of plant-based foods, what often comes to mind is savory recipes, like tofu stir fries and veggie burgers. I wanted to show students that they can incorporate vegetables into sweet dishes, too. A few years ago when I was interning at Whole Foods Market, I learned that the in-house bakeries use only natural food dye in their desserts; their vivid green, purple, and pink frostings had been achieved using things like spinach, blueberries, and beets. So I did some research and found natural food dye tutorials online to use with my students. In February, Mrs. Gelonese’s class made pink heart pancakes with beet-derived dye. It had worked pretty well, so I decided to do more colors for the parties. On Tuesday night, I made a fresh batch of the beet dye, plus green, purple, and yellow dyes, made from boiled spinach, blueberries, and turmeric powder, respectively. I had the fifth graders mix frosting with a few drops of dye in snack-size ziploc bags, then squeeze the colorful concoctions into the cupcakes. The dye made the frosting a little runny at times, but the end result was a rainbow of beautiful, naturally colorful cupcakes!
On Thursday, the Stefanik cooking club made whole-wheat pizza from scratch, topped with herbs from the school garden. I’ve been using this dough recipe (which I wrote about in the previous blog post) both at home and in cooking club meetings, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. It’s made with rapid acting yeast and doesn’t need rising time, so it takes only about 10 minutes to prepare, and when rolled thin, only about 12-15 minutes to bake in the oven, depending on how crispy you want it. While the yeast activated, we went outside to the garden to harvest some fresh basil, chives, and oregano from the herb beds. We experimented with both the sweet Genovese and the purple varieties of basil. The kids each got their own dough ball, rolled it out, and topped it with sauce, cheese, turkey pepperoni (lower in saturated fat than traditional pork), and herbs. I forgot to steal a bite, but the kids said it turned out delicious and it smelled heavenly!
On Friday, the Litwin 5th graders planted more buckets, this time with bell peppers and strawberries. Some of the strawberry transplants already had pale green berries growing. We’re all excited for a great June harvest.Back at Stefanik, I put up the garden signs the students painted earlier this month. Some of them are crop markers, and some of them display the many garden mottos I asked students to think up in class. To represent the many cultures that make up Chicopee today, these mottos were written in different languages. Here are some of my favorites.
By Molly Burke, FoodCorps service member
No, not a human baby--Litwin's first sage sprout! Like clockwork, this little guy just popped up in one of the planters made by Litwin students three weeks ago. Visible are its tiny stem and cotyledons, or first leaves. Along with embryonic roots, cotyledons first form inside the seed and spring out above the ground once planted. Their mission is to begin the cycle of photosynthesis, so the baby plant gets energy from the sun to grow to maturity.
Cotyledons look different from a plant's true leaves, which we use to tell different plants apart. Once these round and stubby baby leaves soak up the sun, the plant will grow its characteristic long, gray-green, fuzzy true leaves and give off its trademark peppery scent. Yum! We are well on our way to a flourishing indoor garden.
By Molly Burke, FoodCorps service member
Outside the Litwin cafeteria windows, the school garden beds hibernate, sometimes under an icy blanket. But that isn’t stopping the fifth-graders from honing their green thumbs; throughout January and February, they will seed herbs in mini planters made from from recycled water bottles collected by the Litwin kitchen staff. Working in teams, students will learn what a seed needs to grow, assemble their indoor garden, and observe its progress daily as they pass through the lunch line, past the planters hanging in the sunny windows. In the spring, they’ll harvest enough herbs to brighten up their scratch-made school lunches with savory basil, fragrant rosemary, and bright thyme.
Indoor herb planters are a fun and healthy way to keep antsy kids busy at home during the long winter. Research shows that engaging children in gardening yields a wealth of benefits ranging from enhanced social and emotional skills to an interest in healthy eating, positive attitudes toward learning, and a dedication to environmental stewardship, according to a report by the University of Colorado Children, Youth and Environments Center for Community Engagement. The article, which sourced nearly three dozen studies on the effects of gardening on youth, also cites that children who have participated in gardening activities show significantly improved abilities to work in groups, are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, score significantly higher on scientific achievement tests, and exhibit “proenvironmental attitudes (Robinson & Zajicek, 2005; Canaris, 1995; Klemmer, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2005; Skelly & Zajicek, 1998).” Now may be a more expedient time than ever to foster the skills gardening helps build. Speaking from experience, teaching kids to work in the garden can be a deeply rewarding exercise, all about stepping away from our overstimulated digital lives in favor of some old-school nature exploration. Who doesn’t like getting their hands dirty in the name of delicious, home-grown food?
Many herbs grow well indoors (watch out for finicky cilantro), though your plants will need a well-lit window or a grow light to simulate the sun’s rays. A good way to keep a kiddo engaged from seed to sprout is to create long-range goals or rewards; for instance, you can plant a “pizza garden” with basil, parsley, rosemary, and chives, and within a few months you should have enough yield for homemade pizza! Have your child keep a weekly garden photo and data log to monitor inches of growth, watering frequency, and sunlight conditions. Later, your child can make a graph of their plant’s progress to show off their gardening skills!
Below is the lesson plan I’ll be using with the fifth graders at Litwin as they build their own indoor garden. You can adapt it as you see fit for your home. As this activity is designed for groups of 4 kids, I’ve broken up the planter assembly steps into specific roles, assigned randomly by selecting different-colored cards that denote gardening materials such as soil and water. These cards tell how each material is to be added, as well as their purpose and some fun facts. For improved soil drainage, I’m using horticultural charcoal in the bottoms of these planters, but since the planters have drainage holes, this step isn’t necessary and can be omitted at home.
Planters need between 4 and 8 hours of direct sunlight and should be watered when the soil feels dry to the touch. Herb varieties like basil, thyme, and chives sprout from seed between one and three weeks and can be harvested after two to three months. Happy planting!
Share your planter creations with us at ChicopeeFRESH by tagging @chicopeefresh on Instagram or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos below were taken by Kelly Zimmerhanzel.
Empty plastic bottles
Masking tape + permanent marker for labeling bottles
Spray bottles with water
Making the bottle planters:
Collect empty plastic water bottles or soda bottles with their caps. They can be as small as 16 oz water bottles or 2L party soda bottles--really any plastic bottle will do. Cut the bottle horizontally, starting about a centimeter or two below where the top of the bottle begins to taper into the spout. You should now have two pieces, with the cap piece shorter than the other. Poke several holes in the bottom of the bottle with a knife, scissors, or nails. Flip the cap piece upside down, make sure the bottom piece fits into the top piece, and secure with super glue. You should now have one piece again, with an opening at the top and a cap at the bottom. Let dry for at least an hour before using. Punch two holes in the top of the planter and loop string through for hanging. With a permanent marker, draw a line an inch below these holes; this is the soil fill line.
Setting up the activity:
Set up a planter-making station. You can do this indoors or outdoors. You’ll need a clear counter surface or space on the floor with a garbage bag, towel, or drop cloth spread out to catch stray soil. Assemble the soil, planter, labeling materials, seeds, spray bottles, and optional charcoal.
Print the Procedures and separate the steps into 4 cards. Give each child a card--that is their role for the activity. Have each child read their card aloud to the group so everyone learns why we need each material in the planter.
Warm up questions:
Label each planter with the seed type and gardeners’ names using masking tape and a marker. Decorate your planters with stickers, paint, or Sharpie doodles, hang in a sunny window and watch them grow!
The ChicopeeFRESH team is a group of creative individuals who are working to feed Chicopee students healthy, local and FRESH foods each day.