DECATUR -- After a summer that was tough for most local gardeners, Garfield Montessori School students are still able to reap the benefits of a special program designed to teach them about healthy foods and what they can do to prevent heart disease. In the spring, the children planted seeds and seedlings as part of the American Heart Association's Teaching Gardens program in conjunction with the Macon County Health Department and some other community partners.
The school hosted a harvest day celebration during which students worked in the garden and displayed some edible art and science projects they had made using fresh fruits and vegetables.
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"Friday was basically the culmination of the plant day event that happened in May," said Tayisha Nelson, a health educator with the Macon County Health Department who has been instrumental in coordinating the school's involvement in the program.
Garfield Montessori is one of approximately 10 Teaching Gardens sites in Illinois and 130 across the country.
Nelson helped students Daniel Morford and Manny Green, both 12, harvest lemon basil. The students felt the texture of the plant and took note of its unique scent and physical characteristics.
"It looks like flowers," said Daniel.
"These leaves can be used in stuff like chicken and spaghetti," Nelson explained, holding out bunches of the basil.
Demetrius Hampton, 13, said he has enjoyed working in the Teaching Garden and the lessons he has learned from being a part of the growing and harvesting processes.
"You get to learn about plants," he said, adding that he made a project in class that he planned to eat later.
Demetrius and some other boys from his class set to work harvesting marigold seeds to be used in future gardening endeavors.
Nelson said the students have been displaying a lot of curiosity and eagerness to learn about the fruits and vegetables growing in their garden. The new garden adds to the hands-on learning they've been doing in an orchard and sensory garden that already existed on school grounds.
"I believe that the interest was there," Nelson said of the kids' enthusiasm. "There were no students that did not like to be out there with the garden."
Students asked lots of questions about the different plants and how some of the fruits, vegetables and herbs can be incorporated into their favorite meals and snacks, Nelson said. The garden was an appropriate medium for teaching students of all different grade levels.
Jarrod Neuhaus, who teaches seventh and eighth grades at the school, said the hot, dry summer made maintaining the garden especially challenging. As the person in charge of the food science curriculum for the Decatur schools' SMASH Camp at Millikin University this summer, he ended up enlisting the help of students from across the district in watering, weeding and checking for growth.
"I would bring the students out there a couple of times a week," he said, adding that it ended up being a powerful learning experience for them, too.
On weekends and after the camp was done, Neuhaus and some volunteers made sure the garden was watered and maintained for the students' return to school.
"You can't predict the weather," Nelson said, adding that the Garfield garden fared better than some other Teaching Gardens sites that just didn't survive the summer.
The Garfield Montessori family and volunteers cared about the success of the project and the importance of the lessons the students would learn from it, she said.
Despite water restrictions and even though the harvest might not have been as bountiful as they had originally hoped, many plants still thrived and the students have derived important classroom and life lessons from the experience, she said.
"We got a lot of stuff out of the garden," Neuhaus said of the weeks leading up to school and the recent harvest day.
In addition, each classroom did a special project that had to do with health or nature. In some cases, the students made edible art projects. One classroom created models of cells using fruits and veggies.
"I think it was really impactful for the students," he said of creating these projects.
The garden has piqued the students' interest in growing and eating healthy foods, Neuhaus said.
"When you put the food in front of the kids, they're willing to try it, and a lot of times they like it," he said, adding that he hopes the children will develop healthy eating habits and mindsets that carry on into adulthood.
The project has also brought new learning experiences to students who otherwise might not have had access to their own gardens or fresh fruits and vegetables at home, he said.
The gardening program goes along with the school's commitment to encouraging and offering healthy mealtime choices, including fresh fruit and veggie options.
"For several years now, we've been on a campaign to make our school healthier," principal Mary Anderson said during an assembly that allowed the students to look back on the garden's progress.
Anderson talked about some of the positive changes the students have made in their eating habits and some of the reasons behind those changes.
Neuhaus said the school has an important responsibility to provide access to nutritious foods that students might not be able to have at home.
Nelson said Garfield teachers will continue to incorporate lessons from the American Heart Association's Teaching Gardens curriculum, and the school will plan and plant a garden again next year. She said she enjoyed seeing all the projects on display in the hallways during the harvest day.
"They were very, very creative," she said.