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Garden class growing at a Maplewood elementary school

By BLYTHE BERNHARD

St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

RICHMOND HEIGHTS, Mo. — At this school, students aren’t just encouraged to smell the flowers, they can eat them too.

All students at Maplewood-Richmond Heights Elementary School take a one-hour garden class every week, just like art and music.

On a recent Wednesday, third graders were studying the five senses as they relate to the change of seasons. They heard the cicadas buzzing. They felt the dead leaves crunch under their feet. They touched the roaming chickens. They watched the bees and butterflies. And they tasted cherry tomatoes, herbs and edible flowers from the garden.

“This mint is too minty,” Austin Crader, 8, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Literally it’s burning my tongue right now.”

The peppery-tasting nasturtiums are “spicy,” said Gretchen Andrews, 8.

“You might not have tried it if I told you it was spicy,” teacher Jessica Mathis said to the students with a laugh. The school hired Mathis full time this fall as its Seed to Table director. Previously, the position was part time.

Mathis oversees the school’s outdoor classroom, pollinator habitat, vegetable and herb garden, and compost pile. But the students do all the work.

There are more than 7,000 school gardens across the country, including 116 in Missouri and 516 in Illinois, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015 Farm to School census. School gardens teach students hands-on science and nutrition lessons plus the importance of environmental stewardship.

The federal Farm to School program was created through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Schools can apply for grants to build gardens and increase their use of local foods. The results have been modest, with Missouri districts spending 3% of their food budgets locally, and Illinois spending 6% as of 2015.

The nonprofit Gateway Greening provides free seeds and tools to more than 60 gardens for kids in St. Louis city and county, including about 10 St. Louis Public Schools. The group’s educators visit the school gardens weekly to provide lessons on science and nutrition.

Over the summer, students and staff at Moline Elementary in the Riverview Gardens School District planted a 3,000-square-foot orchard with fruit trees, berries and vegetables that is open to the community. The private Raintree School in Town and Country won a green ribbon this year from the U.S. Department of Education for its outdoor education and lunch program that includes produce from local farms.

Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District has one of the most extensive food and sustainability programs with its Seed to Table curriculum. It’s the only district in the state, and possibly the country, with full-time garden educators. All students from preschool through sixth grade attend garden and nutrition class once a week. Middle and high school students work in the school gardens and cook food that they grow.

“I think (Maplewood-Richmond Heights) is doing something really progressive, teaching the importance of where the food comes from, reducing waste, how to compost, how to recycle,” Mathis said.

Each third-grade class is in charge of caring for the school’s three chickens. They take turns collecting eggs, cleaning the coop during recess. Families volunteer to take care of the chickens on weekends.

During garden classes, sixth graders weeded the gardens. They analyzed the soil, using chemistry and math. Fifth graders made a salad from their vegetable harvest. And fourth graders took a nature walk through the neighborhood, writing and sketching their observations.

Each class starts with a five-minute mindfulness exercise in the outdoor classroom, with students relaxing their bodies and listening to the sounds around them.

“I want them to feel connected to nature,” Mathis said.

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