La Semilla is working with schools to develop health eating and active living

October 23, 2018

Across the Paso del Norte Region – from Hatch, New Mexico, to East El Paso – schools are learning just how delicious healthy eating can be with La Semilla Food Center’s Edible Education Program.

By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, 33 schools will have partnered with La Semilla to install school gardens and incorporate vegetable gardening, classroom cooking, and nutrition education into their lesson plans. Now in its third year of funding from the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, La Semilla has had more than 250 teachers attend its professional development workshops, where the educators learn how to grow and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables with their students. In September 2018, more than 2,500 students prepared their first of nine farm-box recipes, Minty Melon Delight. Farm boxes are ingredient kits designed to highlight in-season, locally grown produce. Participating classrooms receive a farm box each month and students learn how to follow recipes, practice cooking skills, master the art of balancing flavors and even tailor recipes by selecting some herbs or other “pizazz” from their own school garden. In addition to learning cooking skills, students engage in an evidence-based, behavior-change curriculum that provides the knowledge to make healthy choices, challenges them to set and achieve individual goals, and helps them share their growing love for healthy food with their entire family and school community. In October, students prepare Garden Salsa, and indulge in the last of warm-season veggies before cooler temperatures settle into the border region. In the first two months of the 2018-19 school year, 4,412 pounds of locally grown produce has entered classrooms, where it is prepared and enjoyed by students from kindergarten through high school. “Growing food in school gardens is transformative for teachers and students alike,” says Elizabeth Anichini, program coordinator for La Semilla’s Edible Education efforts. “In many ways, teachers must be as committed to trying new things as they expect their students to be. Teachers become healthy role models, sharing their own enthusiasm for fresh fruits and vegetables with their class.” One such teacher is Erik Nyquist, a veteran Edible Education teacher at Conlee Elementary in Las Cruces. He never stops raving about how much he loves turnips, after a bumper crop two years ago led his class to explore a variety of methods to prepare them.

At Doña Ana Elementary, in Doña Ana, New Mexico, teachers commit to eating only healthy foods in front of their students, and save any treats for the teachers’ lounge to ensure they are setting a healthy example. After her first year in Edible Education, Doña Ana teacher Leticia Griego was still receiving messages from students over the summer with videos showing off their knife skills and excitedly telling about the recipes they had prepared with their families.

And at Mayfield High School, Elizabeth Turner and her students host “Water Wednesday” every week, where they prepare five gallons of infused water featuring herbs and fruits or vegetables from their garden. The water is available to students during lunch and students are encouraged to stay hydrated, while exploring alternatives to sugary beverages and tasting new flavors from the school garden. Water Wednesdays have become such a success that students will stop the cart in the hallway on its way to or from the cafeteria to fill up.

“Schools are finding many creative ways to make the healthy choice, the easy choice and ensure the lessons that teachers and students are learning in Edible Education become a way of life at their school,” says Anichini. “Simple changes like identifying healthier fundraisers, including the garden into math and literacy nights and other school festivities and swapping birthday parties for activity parties all add up to healthier school environments for the entire school community.”

At some schools, the garden has taken hold in Special Education classrooms. At Mayfield High School, classes and student groups partner with Elizabeth Turner’s special education students on garden projects from seed starting in their greenhouse to composting. Teachers say these interactions have transformed relationships across student groups; they notice the student body greeting and including special education students in a new way.

Other schools, like East Picacho Elementary, have integrated Edible Education into their bilingual program by taking advantage of hands-on cooking and gardening experiences to enhance language development and opportunities for exchanges between English and bilingual classrooms. Some schools partner older students with lower grades, offering upper elementary grades an opportunity to mentor younger students and be role models. At some schools Edible Education gives Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) an exciting seed-to-table boost, broadening classroom cooking lessons to include vegetables grown in their own school garden.

At Lynn Community Middle School in Las Cruces, New Mexico, FACS classes are using La Semilla’s GROW after-school program curriculum to guide their cooking labs. Mesita Elementary in El Paso had already cultivated a strong identity as a healthy school prior to enrolling in Edible Education. With the active participation of its PTA, vegetable gardening, classroom cooking and nutrition lessons enhanced this existing culture of health and added one more way that the healthy choice is the easy choice for students and staff.

Edible Education is successfully integrated in schools in ways La Semilla only dreamed of when it first approached the Health Foundation for funding. Its role remains designing and building gardens; providing teachers the knowledge, skills and resources to be successful; and exploring with each school how they might make the program their own.

“One of the most exciting developments in our Edible Education program has been the growing network of teachers who generate new ideas, create and share lessons, and help mentor new Edible Educators,” Anichini says.

“Sometimes our hearts sink for a moment when we find out that a key teacher or administrator involved in Edible Education is retiring or transferring to a new school.”

It was easy to feel that way at first when Principal Leon Smith left Loma Linda Elementary to become the principal at Santa Teresa Elementary. Principal Smith was known to pass by the Loma Linda school garden and enjoy a carrot from time to time. Students recognized a principal who shared their love and enthusiasm for the veggies they grew in their school garden.

A few months later La Semilla got word that Jessica Rodriguez, a veteran Edible Education teacher, was leaving her school and also headed to Santa Teresa Elementary. It didn’t take long to realize that what at first seemed like losses were actually an opportunity to bring Edible Education to a new school, fortified with two Edible Education all-stars.

“We now know that once the garden is in place, and the vehicle for training and support is strong and accessible to new teachers, re-activating the program can happen quickly and relatively easily,” says Anichini. “We work to ensure our workshops and program as a whole are always open to welcome new teachers to Edible Education.

“We’re excited to be able to share with them our most valuable resource – being immediately connected to a hundred other teachers who can offer advice, share successes, and help make them confident as they try something new and delicious with their students.”

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