Lettuce celebrate! School garden turns a year old | Rockin’ a Hard Place

Second graders at Coupeville Elementary School held their very first “salad celebration” in their classroom late last month. On a Thursday, they carefully arranged place settings for themselves with bowls, forks and napkins.

Then they devoured a salad of lettuce, kale, radishes, cherry tomatoes and croutons, even though some may never have been big salad fans at home.

Why such youthful enthusiasm for salad? Because the second graders had grown the lettuce and kale themselves — nurturing them from seeds; planting them earlier this year in the school’s brand new vegetable garden; watering, weeding, fertilizing and mulching them; and then harvesting them the morning of their classroom feast.

The second graders’ celebration also marked the successful end of the elementary school garden’s first year, a tribute to the devotion, generosity and hard work of community volunteers who dreamed up the Coupeville Farm to School program three years ago and then made it a reality. Now in the works: an even bigger garden being prepped at the nearby middle and high schools.

When I attended Mary Lyon Elementary School in Tacoma back in the Pleistocene Age (aka the 1950s), we had a small school garden sponsored by the PTA. We watched corn grow and strawberries ripen. But most school gardens disappeared in the decade that followed.

Teachers were too busy with paperwork and standardized tests; moms and dads were too tired from working all the time; kids had too many other things to do after school; and besides, every fresh vegetable under the sun had become available year-round in the nearest supermarket, transported by ship or truck from somewhere in world.

The result? Most of us forgot how food grows and where it comes from. Even here, in the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, where we drive, run, bike or walk by gorgeous working farms every day.

That’s why I was so heartened after spending a few minutes talking with Zvi Bar-Chaim, a former Chicago schoolteacher and recent graduate of the Whidbey Organic Farm School who was hired last fall by the Farm to School program as the school garden coordinator.

(The garden — and his position — are entirely funded by community donations; no school funds are involved).

We walked through rows of tomatoes, corn, squash, peppers, beans, onions and lettuce planted by the fourth, second and kindergarten classes as part of their school-year curriculum.

Next year he hopes to expand participation to the first, third and fifth graders as well.

“Most of the kids like being outside in the garden, getting their hands dirty,” he said. “It’s a nice break from their classroom studies. And some who struggle in class or have behavior problems indoors do better out here.”

There is formal teaching involved — about seeds, flowers, pollination and how plants grow. Several rows of short tree stumps form an outdoor classroom at one end of the garden.

The fourth graders have gone a step further with a scientific “experiment” to see how different kinds of soil structure affect the growth of cabbage, squash and other vegetables.

Beginning next fall, Bar-Chaim and his students will plant vegetables that he hopes will meet the strict standards required to be served in the school cafeteria — things like radishes, beans, orange and red peppers and, of course, lettuce. Given how much the second graders enjoyed their salad celebration, that seems like a sure bet.