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Denver schoolchildren learn good nutrition from the ground up

Steele Garden and Playground
Steele School Playground and Garden

Ask the average child, “Where does your food come from?” and you’ll get a variety of responses, which might include: the fridge, the kitchen, the store, factories, Mom, or maybe even McDonalds. Ask the children at Steele Elementary in Washington Park (320 S. Marion Parkway), and the answer is more likely to be, “Our garden.” In 27 schools throughout the metro area, including Steele, children are reconnecting with their food origins by working the soil in school gardens.

The prevalence of obesity in U.S. children is astounding, and growing. It could be argued that because physical activity isn’t mandated daily in schools, children aren’t burning the necessary calories to keep their waistlines trim. Compound that with their increasing disconnection from the production and quality of the food they consume, and the problem escalates.

According the Colorado Physical Activity and Nutrition Program (COPAN), a program under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), prevention of obesity, among other healthy choices, includes:

• Making healthy personal food choices including at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, six servings of grains daily (including whole grains), limiting unhealthy fats and sugars, and eating reasonable portion sizes. 

• Promoting healthy food choices at home, in schools, at worksites, and in communities.

How are Steele and a handful of other Denver Public Schools (DPS) hoping to reconnect children with their food to teach the value of good food choices?

Mr Andy shows off Steele's prize lemon cucumbersFor the past eight years, Andy Nowak, a chef and educator with a PhD in psychology, has been cultivating the Steele Garden and including students in the entire season of growing, from seed to table. “We have 27 schools either in progress, or planning to come on board in the future,” Nowak, affectionately known to students as “Mr. Andy”, explains. “Half of [the gardens] are only a year or two old.” Of the 27 gardens, half reside at Denver’s public schools and the other half in other Colorado school districts. Students, parents and teachers maintain the gardens.

Major corporate supporters include Country Fair Garden Center, Lowes, Paulino Gardens, and for cooking utensils, Oxo. Contributions include seed trays, seeds, plants, soil, and tools, although the program could always benefit from more donations, or grants to pay the long-time volunteers. Nowak, who has been working the Steele Garden for eight years, reveals, without complaint, “I haven’t been paid a nickel for this. This has all been full-time volunteer.” Although, he adds, “We would love to find that support.”

How does a school garden help kids? Nowak, in conjunction with Slow Food Denver, a non-profit chapter of Slow Food USA, draws attention away from “fast” food to help children better understand the importance of food origins. By involving a community of people who have a vested interest in the outcome, children learn the nutritional value of each food, the diversity of plant species, and the cultivation processes for each type of food. Ultimately, according to Nowak and Krista Roberts of Slow Food Denver, that makes the food taste really good!

“I think that’s really one of the keys to making a garden successful is the community support,” Roberts says. In the last decade, Slow Food Denver has picked up speed in spreading their message about the value of school garden programs. “The whole purpose of Slow Food is to connect communities with their local producers, food traditions, and just food, and also educate and advocate for sustainable food issues,” Roberts explains.

Every year in the spring, Steele’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) students are planting peanuts, kindergarteners are planting herbs for Mother’s Day gardens, and the first- and second-graders are planting vegetable seeds in starter pots, which are cared for in the classrooms. By late spring, the plants are in the ground in the outdoor garden, which becomes an outdoor classroom space. Third- through fifth-graders are responsible for caring for the garden, watering, weeding, harvesting and cleaning. In addition to classes on cultivation, Nowak educates children about composting to teach them about how nature’s decay process contributes to a budding plant’s future health.

Families take over the garden throughout the summer. At Steele, “I hire kids for the summer. I give them a small stipend and they and their families come for two-week stretches to weed and water and harvest during the summer,” Nowak explains. And by the new school year, the garden is ready for harvest. To create a year-long garden classroom, Steele is adding a greenhouse to its garden, the first of the DPS elementary schools to do so.

A coalition, including participating DPS schools, Slow Food Denver and Denver Urban Gardens, hosts Youth Farmers’ Markets from September through October, and students become marketers and purveyors of fresh produce. “The goal of the farmers’ market – it’s an extension of our garden program. It’s meant to show the kids a little marketing, little bit of what we can do with produce, seasonality, it gives them some money skills, people skills, social skills,” Nowak explains. Twenty schools participate in farmers’ markets throughout September and October. All of the money raised goes right back into the ground, figuratively.

The school’s farm stand is complemented by additions from select local farms to offer sweet corn, melons, and other items not being grown by the school. The kids learn what is being grown locally, they support local farms, and, in the process, they are not exposed to chemical fertilizers or pesticides, as Nowak only uses organic gardening practices.

Just recently, DPS Food and Nutrition Services along with Slow Food Denver wrote a grant for School Food FOCUS (Food Options for Children in Urban Schools) – and beat out Baltimore, LA, and Chicago, to win a $50,000 grant to initiate a farm to cafeteria program – sourcing food locally. “The whole push of the grant is to use the buying power of large school districts to effect change in the local food procurement system so that now we can get the district taking to the farmers, and the ranchers, and the local producers, to find out – What are the hurdles? Why aren’t they talking to each other?” Nowak says.

The goal is to get locally produced food into the school cafeterias. The support and cooperation of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, The Colorado Health Foundation, and the Colorado Organic Producers Association offered tremendous weight to the grant application.

Just this past September, DPS offered Colorado Proud School Meal Day, featuring Rocky Ford melons, Palisade peaches, and tomato-cucumber salad made from local farms. This constituted the largest Colorado-produced portion of a DPS lunch ever to be served for a Colorado Proud School Meal Day. DPS currently serves 35,000 school lunches daily. Through the grant, the coalition hopes to build the capacity to produce enough for Colorado schools, instead of importing produce from other states.

DPS science leaders are currently meeting with Nowak and Slow Food Denver to write a large National Science Foundation grant for the school gardens. Specific lesson plans for science programs could include classes in the gardens, plant life, earth science, weather, soil conditions, and plant biology. “The teachers are under such demands and pressures to teach the basic curriculum, " Nowak explains. "That’s why we want to get this additional funding so we can bring in trained people to support the teachers for either the school gardens or the school farms.” In describing the garden, Nowak says, “It’s a live laboratory with hands-on experiences for the kids, rather than reading about it in a book.” Ideally, he would like to see the garden rise to the level of art, music and drama in schools, with a paid teacher in that capacity.

By offering classes in the gardens, and demonstrations in the cafeterias, Nowak is making the connection between what is in the garden and what is on their plates. “My goal here is to show diversity in plants,” in order to grow a child’s palate of food choices, to eat a rainbow, eat a variety, and not just focus on favorites, he explains.

Clearly, this is a labor of love for Nowak, and it seems to be paying off. “It took eight hour-long meetings to get [Steele’s] garden going eight years ago. We’re opening up our 28th garden at Smith Elementary in Park Hill in October, one 15-minute meeting is all it took to make it happen,” he says. “We work within the system. We’ve made it a point to work with DPS.”

For More Information

Slow Food Denver
Denver Urban Gardens

Upcoming Youth Farmers’ Markets

Steele, 320 S. Marion Pkwy.
Fridays*, 2:30-4:30 p.m.

Bradley, 3051 S. Elm St.
Oct. 8, 22, 3:45-4:30 p.m.

Bromwell, 2500 E. Fourth Ave.,
Thursdays*, 2:30-4:30 p.m.

Fairmont, 520 W. Third Ave.
Fridays*, 4-5:30 p.m.

Lowry, 8011 E. Cedar Ave.
Oct. 9, 23, 3-4:30 p.m.

Slavens, 3000 S. Clayton St.
Oct. 3, 3-5 p.m.

* through October 15th