When teachers recite the nursery rhyme, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” preschool children in California and Arizona will have the answer.
In January, 100 preschools and daycare centers in California were awarded $1,000 from Western Growers Foundation, a charitable division of Western Growers Association, a trade group for produce growers in California and Arizona, to start food gardens.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture and the state Department of Education will administer the grants. Teachers can use the funds to purchase fruit, vegetable and herb plants, seeds and gardening equipment.
“Children, in general, don’t know where their food comes from,” explains Paula Olson, director of the Western Growers Foundation. “The gardens get them excited about eating fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Olson believes that food gardens should be a part of all school curricula and points to lessons about science, nutrition and teamwork taking place while kids dig in the dirt and watch things grow.
“The kids are wild with excitement about the gardens,” she says.
Rachelle Pastor Arizmendi, director of early child education for Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment preschools in Los Angeles, Calif., one of the Western Growers Foundation grant recipients, believes the garden will serve as a living classroom, teaching the 3- to 5-year-old students important lessons about healthy eating habits and where their foods come from.
“We can tie so many aspects of learning into the garden,” Pastor Arizmendi says. “It’s a great opportunity for our students, who wouldn’t have [had] the opportunity to grow their own vegetables and understand how the plants they planted turned into the foods on their tables.”
Pastor Arizmendi used the $1,000 grant to purchase raised-bed kits, soil, tools and plants for the preschool. Without funding from Western Growers Foundation, PACE wouldn’t have been able to afford to install a food garden on their preschool campus.
The school started its garden in January. Teachers worked alongside students to plant lettuce, strawberries, beans, carrots, chard and other vegetables. The children used pint-sized tools to dig holes and water the plants and take responsibility for tending to the foods growing outside their classroom windows.
“The garden really stimulates their curiosity,” says Pastor Arizmendi. “They are developing skills that we hope they carry on for life.”
Western Growers Foundation began awarding grants for school gardens in 2003. To date, the organization has helped 600 schools in California and Arizona establish onsite gardens with funding totaling $600,000.
“Our members wanted a way to give back to their communities,” says Olson. “They are passionate about this program and the difference it’s making at schools across Arizona and California.”