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School garden grows strong

by Bryce Gray/Lake County Leader
| October 14, 2013 10:32 AM

DIXON — Teeming with greenery and kids bearing armfuls of fresh vegetables, the garden outside of Dixon Elementary School has yielded far more than simply a strong harvest in its inaugural growing season. Besides produce, the plot of land has also proved to be fertile ground for hands-on instruction on gardening and broader lessons about the importance of good nutrition and eating locally-grown food.

“I think [the garden] was successful just because we got it going. We gotta start somewhere,” said Pattie Fialcowitz, reflecting on the project. Fialcowitz, a local farmer whose oldest child is starting kindergarten at the school this year, has been the main driving force behind the creation and management of the garden.

“I have a farm down here and have three small kids. This is a place where a lot of the kids hang out [and enjoy picking fruits and vegetables]… I thought, ‘Boy, they should all have the opportunity to do that,’” Fialcowitz said, describing her motivation to break ground on the garden.

The garden has enjoyed robust support from others at the school, as a number of teachers attended a workshop aimed at integrating agriculture into their curriculum.

As Fialcowitz suspected, the garden has made a powerful first impression with students.

“They love it. They’re excited whenever we say we’re going to go out there,” first and second grade teacher Kim Riech said of her students. “It’s hands-on learning about the real world.”

Besides learning the basics of plant anatomy and discussing whether we eat the root, fruit, or leaf of various plants, Riech said that kids are also taking in the big picture about agriculture and reversing some of their perceptions about the sources of our food.

“A lot of times, kids think food comes from the grocery store,” explained Riech. “The school garden is the closest we can get to where our food comes from.”

Fialcowitz is hopeful that those big takeaway points taught by the garden will help make a difference in the everyday choices the kids and their families make about nutrition.

She notes that many children in the district come from disadvantaged households and rely on the school for breakfast and lunch, and sometimes dinner.

“That’s the bulk of the food that the kids are eating and it’s all processed. These kids can make better food choices and know what better food is like,” Fialcowitz said.

Some items from the garden, such as green beans, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers, have been incorporated into school meals as convenient and healthy snacks. Other things grown in the garden - from peppers, to carrots, to beets, to name a few - are sent home with the children for them to share with their families.

“Food security around here is not a given,” Fialcowitz continued. “I just want to see them make better food choices and have this knowledge under their belts, and be able to grow their own food.”

Next year, Fialcowitz expects to harvest even more from the garden by getting an earlier jump on the growing season. The garden’s future success will also be aided by the 20,000 red wiggler worms the school recently obtained through a grant to launch a building-wide vermiculture project.

With the help of the new “school pets,” food and paper scraps generated by students are converted into compost that will be used in the garden, and maybe even sold for a profit. Fialcowitz said that the school’s worms can eat about 20 pounds of garbage a day.

“I’m not usually a worm lover, but this is cool,” said fourth grader Sequoia Allen, looking into the bin that houses the worms. “Taking the food and breaking it down into compost – I never knew that [about worms] before.”

It’s been hard work, but Fialcowitz can only smile at the winning combination of kids, worms, and veggies.

“Gardens are positive places. Kids need positive places to be,” said Fialcowitz, who adds the community as a whole has embraced the project.“Over the summer, we had community weeding days on Tuesdays. We had quite a few people show up to help. Everybody benefits.”

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