July 7, 2008

Blaine Elementary sixth graders Elizabeth Bowens, foreground, and Kayla Smith inspect the plants in their Italian garden outside of the school

Sixth, seventh and eighth grade students at Blaine Elementary School in Lawrence County learned about the foods and cultures of other countries through University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service's Junior Master Gardener program.

Each grade was in charge of growing one of three raised bed gardens at the school. The gardens contained ingredients commonly used in Hispanic, Asian or Italian cooking. Students not only learned about gardening basics but gained knowledge about the countries by researching their culture, religion, sports, famous natives and history.

"We wanted to incorporate agriculture and hands-on learning into all aspects of the classroom, not just science or math, where you would traditionally think about agriculture. By talking about a culturally themed garden, we incorporated the humanities and history," said Julia Rollins, Lawrence County agriculture and natural resources extension agent.

            With limited resources and grocery options, gardening is a common practice for the residents of Blaine and Lawrence County. The county seat, Louisa, which is 20 miles northeast of Blaine, only recently got a Wal-Mart last fall. Like many parts of the United States, rising food prices have generated interest among county residents about adding to or growing their own gardens.

            The program was funded through community supporters and a mini grant from Farm Bureau. Partners included Lawrence County Farm Bureau, Peoples Security Bank, Lawrence County Judge Executive Dave Compton, Lawrence County Conservation District, Lawrence County Extension District Board, and Lawrence County 4-H Community Council.

            Blaine Elementary was selected for the project because of the success Karen Harmon, the county's extension assistant for Children, Youth and Families at Risk program (CYFAR), has had in working with some of the school's students to build leadership skills.

            The group met during school hours. Half their meeting time was divided between classroom activities and garden work. In addition to Rollins, Lawrence County extension agents for family and consumer sciences and 4H Youth development played a role in the program. Lawrence County Master Gardeners and University of Kentucky College of Agriculture specialists also spoke to the students on topics ranging from entomology to food safety.

            "A lot of them I think have come to an appreciation of how food is raised," said Sharon Fields, Blaine Elementary practical living and pre-engineering teacher. "It's worked right in with the culture, foods, food safety and other things they were learning in practical living."

            Similar to the Master Gardener program, the students must complete a certain amount of community service in order to become Junior Master Gardeners. Once their crop is harvested, the young people will put together vegetable and fruit baskets for needy families in the community. They also served as ambassadors for the program through public speaking and answering questions about their gardens during the county's Farm and Home Field Day in June.

            Because of the wet spring, the garden is behind schedule. Rollins said she hopes to harvest when the students return to school in the fall, and the students are welcome to work in the garden during summer break.

            Once the crops are harvested, in addition to putting together the baskets for needy families, the students will have the opportunity to try the foods using different recipes and learn about food preservation.

            Rollins said she hopes to expand the program in the fall to include all of the elementary schools in the county.

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