School grows greens to broaden student appetites

Gardening part of statewide project to influence diet

Friday, June 20, 2008

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Staff photo by JESSE YEATMAN
Fifth-grader Athan Felactu weighs out lettuce he collected from the salad tables at the Chesapeake Public Charter School. The project was part of a statewide experiment by the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service to get more kids and adults to eat vegetables.

It was hard not to sample the evidence.

As students from Chesapeake Public Charter School harvested greens from five growing stations next to the school building, the reminder came from an instructor or another student more than once: ‘‘Don’t eat it, we have to weigh it.”

The greens were part of an experiment that has grown across the state from the offices of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service to see if grow-your-own vegetables foster better eating habits.

Similar beds, called salad tables, were constructed and planted at other places in the state, including senior centers, other public and private schools and a correctional facility. Each station will have a group who tends to and monitors the plants’ growth.

In addition to a final weight tally, the students kept track on watering and sunlight as well as notes on any pests or pest damage. The data will be compiled and extension service will develop a Web site with details about how to build a salad table as well as how to plant and harvest the vegetables.

Liat Mackey, the salad table project coordinator in St. Mary’s and extension service county director, said the project sets out to answer two main questions: Are salad tables a feasible tool for growing greens for different groups of people and can the experience of using the salad tables change the attitudes and eating behaviors of the participants?

Three local master gardeners assisted with the program, including A. Gail Whitney, who is also the 4-H extension program assistant in St. Mary’s.

‘‘When they go to the grocery store now with their parents, they’ll see all these things and know what it is,” Whitney said.

Angela Funya and Tara Duarte also helped build and monitor the program at the charter school. Younger children at the school who are members of the gardening club partnered with fourth- and fifth-graders to grow the vegetables. ‘‘They’re very excited,” Whitney said.

Armed with scissors and plastic bags, students on Monday harvested the lettuce, radishes and herbs grown in the salad tables, on Monday, about three months after the seeds were planted.

Fifth-grader Athan Felactu took note of the fragrant aroma of some red-leafed lettuce as he snipped it from the stalks and stowed it in a baggie.

‘‘It smells exactly like it tastes,” he said, describing the vegetable that ‘‘jazzes up your salad.” He said he and his mom grow the lettuce and other vegetables at home in their garden.

‘‘My family, we love salads,” he said.

The project was integrated in science, math and other curricula for the students throughout the spring. Earlier in the school year Mackey did some nutrition education with Mathis’ fourth- and fifth-grade class to prepare students for the project.

Less than 30 percent of adults in the state consume five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, the minimum amount generally recommended for good health.

Eating more fruits and vegetables can help decrease obesity, which has doubled over the last 25 years in Maryland, and chronic diseases, according to information from the Cooperative Extension Service.

The hope is more people will be able to grow their own fresh vegetables at home using the salad tables and ‘‘create new and exciting salads at home,” thus saving money on food costs.

The projects also incorporated some people with special needs, and the table designs were available at different heights to make them accessible by wheelchair.

The charter school will replant the salad tables for a second harvest when school starts back up later this summer.