We have become accustomed to the tastes and scents of produce after the food has been traveling for days on a truck or sitting on a grocery store shelf. But at East Central Schools, students have access to fresher and healthier food choices, in fact, they can literally reach out and pick organic produce right in their own classroom!

Fifth-grade teacher Mary VonRueden and FACS teacher Lorelei Finley are advocates for a healthy lifestyle for their students. Since schools do not have budgets that can absorb the significantly higher costs associated with organic produce, they, in coordination with the school Wellness Committee, have been seeking alternative means to increase access to nutritious vegetables, including planting gardens on school property. “Growing food in an outdoor school garden poses some challenges, as the growing season does not match up with the school year,” said Finley.

A sustainable solution began to germinate in 2021 when the EC Wellness Committee was awarded a grant from Essentia Health and additional funds from the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP), which funded two classroom Tower Gardens along with materials to build an outdoor school garden. The Tower Gardens bridge a gap in teaching kids about healthy foods and gardening during the winter months.

Tower Gardens are aeroponic growing systems and East Central’s are currently bursting with basil, rainbow Swiss chard, arugula, and lettuce. Tower Gardens are manufactured using BPS-free, food-grade plastic. The food grown is 100% organic and uses no soil, which also means no pests or contamination to worry about. A water pump infuses mist that goes directly to the roots of the plants, and a “Tower Tonic” supplies the essential minerals. Maintenance is a snap. Besides adding nutrients, the gardens are checked weekly for pH balance. Students germinate the seeds and tend to the plants, and in just a few weeks they can share the joy of consuming their harvest. Other benefits for students are exposed to the different tastes of a variety of leafy greens at a young age, learning where their food really comes from, and experiencing the nurturing feeling and pride that accompanies growing one’s own food. All of this leads students to make healthier choices when it comes to eating.

This area of study and experimentation has led to a world beyond iceberg lettuce for East Central students. VonRueden noted that research shows if children have a hand in growing and making their own food, they are more likely to try it. And try it they have! The student feedback so far has been better than we could have ever hoped!

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