Port St. Joe fifth-grader Hannah Tomlinson said the best part of the growing season at the elementary school garden is the “digging and the picking.”
Last week she and her classmates got down to the feasting.
Or as teacher Brenda Wood said, “The best lunch we have all year.”
The school’s “Seeds to Plate” program – part of a countywide effort to encourage healthier eating habits and bring some agricultural education to the schools – reached harvest time in recent weeks.
The folks at the Gulf County Extension Office, along with staff from the University of Florida, molded that harvest of spinach, greens, sweet potatoes, green beans and corn among other items into a spread that more than 80 fifth-grade students devoured post haste.
“This is good,” said Leondra Leslie through lips guarding a full mouth. “They really know how to cook.”
The feast is the payoff for the students tasked with maintaining the garden all year long.
Well, tasked might be hyperbole.
“They love it,” Wood said of the garden program overseen by extension director Roy Lee Carter. “They love to go outside and work.
“You could take the worst-behaved child and put them out there in the garden and they are the best-behaved child.”
The county program is a mirror to the “Food to Plate” outreach that provides the umbrella under which Seeds to Plate operates.
Food to Plate, which comes out of collaboration between UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science and the Florida Department of Agriculture, offers grant funding and education for school-based programs around the state.
They work with farmers to understand what is available locally to match that information with school-based needs, said Chrystina Walmer with UF. The goal is to expose youngsters to more fresh foods.
“School gardens are becoming popular,” Walmer said. “People see the potential.
“I am impressed with what you have here, the gardens, the knowledge, the passion. It’s an exciting time.”
Carter said his goal working with the schools – Carter spearheads programs in the Wewahitchka and Port St. Joe public schools as well as Faith Christian School – is layered.
“One is to get the kids eating healthier,” Carter said. “You name it and they have grown it and will eat it.
“But it is also to teach the kids about gardening and keeping agriculture in the schools. We want them to know where that food mom and dad buys at the grocery store comes from.”
This school year, Carter had 80 fifth-graders participating in Port St. Joe and 65 in Wewahitchka.
“At the end of the year we get to have a feast,” Carter said.
The kids chowed, wolfing down heaping piles of greens and plenty of sweet potato pie supplemented with baked chicken and cornbread.
The clean trays and smiles pretty much summed up the result.
“They like to see the fruits of their harvest,” Wood said. “They liked to be served something different.”