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A bumper crop of goodness

Echo Press photo by Heather Huwe A group of Compass children observed the growth of the community garden with Douglas County master gardener Diane Henry.1 / 3
Echo Press photo by Heather Huwe2 / 3
Echo Press photo by Heather Huwe A group of Compass students walked through the Community Garden at Alexandria's Woodland Elementary School.3 / 3

They're called "community gardens." And at two local schools, they're producing a bumper crop of goodness - excited students, a new way of learning, healthy meals for hungry families, new partnerships and more.

Students in the Compass program, those in kindergarten through 6th grade, have been tending the community garden at Woodland Elementary throughout the summer.

The food they grow in the gardens is being given to the local United Way's "Plant an Extra Row" program, which helps feed low-income families throughout the area.

The food will also be used for school meals and snacks throughout the district, according to Barb Larson, the director of food and nutrition services in Alexandria School District 206.

At Woodland, there are currently about 22 different types of produce grown in the garden and it will double in size over the next year.

Last week alone, about 22 pounds of zucchini were collected, noted Lauren Noyes, 4-H extension intern who is helping with the community garden. She helps with the garden each morning and teaches children throughout the week.

The children, Noyes said, are very excited to share what they've grown and pay close attention to the garden's changes each day.

Diane Henry, a Douglas County master gardener, said her goal for the program is to teach children about gardening practices, preparation, plants and insects.

Some of the children's favorite garden activities are watering, weeding and learning about the garden.

The produce will also be shared at the Douglas County Fair. The children will participate in 4-H produce and educational poster display exhibit shows. This will give them another opportunity to share what they've grown and learned from the garden this summer.

There are many goals for the school garden projects, said Larson.

The district plans to add more gardens at schools and the fruits and vegetables will be used for all the district students, Larson said.

This will help improve daily nutrition by increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by adding more of the produce to the school meals, she added. The garden also provides food security for individuals or families on limited incomes by giving some of the produce to "Plant an Extra Row."

The partnership also teaches the students the importance and value of giving back to their communities, added Larson.

Larson hopes the school garden project will also create more community partnerships between organizations, local farmers and the Food and Nutrition Services of District 206.

She also hopes the community garden, which she described as a learning nutrition laboratory, will blossom into an outdoor classroom to enhance existing curriculum lessons in nutrition, science, math, art and life skills.

The garden is boosting awareness about local food systems, nutrition and agriculture, Larson added. These lessons are taught both inside and outside the classroom, she said.

And the garden's bounty doesn't end there. Through gardening, students, parents, staff and community volunteers are enjoying long-term benefits of being physically active and they're getting the satisfaction of growing their own food source, said Larson.

Larson wrote the grant proposals to get funding for the 2010 growing season and cover start-up costs. Grants currently secured are from Douglas County master gardeners and the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), she said.

One goal of the SHIP grant is to increase the amount of non-traditional fitness and activity opportunities for children ages 5 to 14. The immediate goal of SHIP is to encourage students to participate in lifelong fitness activities by exposing them to a variety of activities they can enjoy in a non-competitive environment.

The SHIP grant should impact about 300 families and 1,000 students, Larson said. She added that SHIP grants were received for community gardens at both Woodland and Miltona schools through Douglas County Public Health's partnership with West Central Wellness. It's a five-county agreement for Douglas, Pope, Traverse, Stevens and Grant.

The community garden has many partners that have helped make the 2010 season a big success, said Larson.

Woodland Elementary staff, students and volunteer families have helped maintain, care and contribute to the garden. Miltona Magnet School volunteer families and parent leaders Carrie and Adrian Thompson have made many contributions to the Miltona garden site.

Douglas County Master Gardeners Diane and Steve Henry have taken the leadership role at the Woodland garden site. With other volunteer master gardeners, they've provided expertise to teach the students about all aspects of gardening.

The Douglas County 4-H program has provided a student intern, Noyes, to work four hours each week with students in the garden and help them prepare exhibits for the Douglas County Fair.

The University of Minnesota Extension Service has provided a nutrition education assistant and is partnering with District 206 food and nutrition staff to teach Compass students nutrition and cooking lessons two days a week during the summer months.

District 206 Community Education has scheduled adult enrichment classes that provide food and nutrition staff an opportunity to learn gardening techniques.

United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties planned a Day of Caring in which Target employees could volunteer to help build and prepare the raised beds for the garden projects.

United Way staff and volunteers also deliver the fresh grown produce to areas of need in the Douglas County area.

Lewis Struthers, a retired physician and Douglas County master gardener, has provided valuable expertise on selecting apple trees at three of the school sites to help fulfill the goal of offering fresh apples for school meals and snacks.

"A school garden is not as simple as it sounds," said Larson. "There is a lot of planning and coordination of activities that has to occur."

There are many activities focused on gardening and nutrition. The community garden is a 12-month-long program, added Larson.

The staff is also happy to be involved, said Stephanie Grimes, a Community Education youth coordinator. Many of them had never had fresh-squeezed orange juice and enjoyed the tasty benefits of that lesson. Everyone involved in the program is learning more about gardening, she added.

Although the gardens have had great support, they are still in need of more help. More materials are needed for the garden projects. Organizers also want to create local farm-to-school networks to support community-based food systems. Financial and volunteer help are also needed to sustain the school garden concept beyond the first year, said Larson.

Those interested in helping with supplies, financial support or their time may call Larson at (320) 762-0720.