Six years ago Dan and his 7th and 8th grade students got permission to create a half-acre garden on part of a sod farm across the street from the school. What started as a simple idea to grow food for the hungry has turned into a community-wide effort to teach kids about hunger issues, science, the environment, gardening, and giving back to the community. The Kids Grow! Program donated up to 10,000 pounds of produce to local food shelves over the last six years and involves more than 300 students a year at four area schools. "We have expanded the focus into many disciplines," says Dan. "We now have kids learning about recycling, pollution, land use, and open-space issues as well as food and hunger relief," he says.
One of the unique aspects of the Kids Grow! program is how Dan has gotten elementary schools and students involved. "Our middle school classes approached the elementary schools in our district and offered to set up a garden for them," says Dan. "Teachers jumped at the chance, but instead of me teaching the elementary kids about gardening, I let the middle-school kids do the teaching. The results have been phenomenal. The older kids learn the responsibility of teaching and the younger kids really respond to having older peers teach them," says Dan. They currently have six gardening classes in three elementary schools. His students not only help build the gardens at the elementary schools, but come back and assist with the planting and maintenance as well. There's a real sense of ownership and pride in the gardens.
Summer maintenance is usually a big problem in many school garden programs. Not so with the Kids Grow! gardens. Although Rhode Island Master Gardeners have helped supervise the work, it's the kids that keep the garden growing all summer. "We have work nights twice a week and usually get 6 to 12 kids a night to help," says Dan. "We have dinner one night a week together in the garden. It becomes a social thing for kids, a way for them to keep in touch with friends through the summer."
The Southern Rhode Island Conservation District has continued to encourage Dan and his Kids Grow! project by getting them a greenhouse. Last year Dan and his class grew all their own seedlings for the gardens. "The greenhouse also gives teachers the opportunity to do plant-based projects in the winter to support the science curriculum," says Dan.
The measure of success in the Kids Grow! Program goes beyond pounds of produce donated. "I think students are really getting the message about the value of community service," says Dan. "I have high school seniors who still come out and volunteer in the garden. I think they understand that giving back to the community makes this a better place to live."
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