Kasey Saddler, 10, says he has an overactive amygdala — the part of the brain that processes fear and threats. He says it causes him to get “really mad over tiny little things.”
Gardening helps him.
Walking between rows of vegetables, he stops and points to the beets, which Kasey says are bigger if the leaves are small, and smaller if the leaves are big.
“Here, try a sugar snap pea,” Kasey says.
When his family lived in Florida, they had a garden with blueberries, blackberries and raspberries but lost it when they moved to Texas. “Things kind of fell apart for me,” Kasey said, offering some chives.
But now, he gets to garden again.
The IDEA Achieve campus, a public charter school in Fort Worth, is giving students the chance to grow their own cafeteria food while learning the science of plants.
Since returning to campus post COVID-19 shutdowns, Principal Giovanni Outram said the campus wanted to get students outside and away from screens more.
“We’ve seen that help them with their behavior,” Outram said. “We’ve seen them develop healthier eating habits, because now they’re exposed to different types of fruits and vegetables. And I think they’re also just more excited about school, about learning.”
Gardening also helps their mental health, he said. The fresh air and physical activity are good for children. It helps them regulate their emotions.
“The garden relieves me of the stress,” Kasey said in reference to when “little things” make him mad.
‘We grew that’
While eating tacos with pico de gallo in the cafeteria one day, Principal Giovanni Outram said a student informed him they grew the food he was eating for lunch.
“They engage in farming, they see the produce grow, they actually pull it and then they take it to our cafeteria staff, and they prepare it in our meals,” Outram said.
The students tend to rows of fruits, vegetables and herbs. They plant the garden, water and harvest the plants once they’re ready.
Not only does working in the garden help the students learn about the plant cycle, but the fresh air and physical activity has health benefits too, Outram said.
On May 19, fourth grade students were harvesting carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, sugar snap peas and green beans. They’ve planted sunflowers, mint, chives, corn, strawberries, flowers and other produce.
While the garden doesn’t feed the whole school, Outram said it still provides a lot for the cafeteria.
Real-world experiences, like working in the garden, maximizes instruction, Outram said.
The program started in 2019, but has grown exponentially with community support. The campus is currently installing a hydroponic system, which waters the plants and provides nutrients without the need for soil. Using the system allows the campus to grow more food in an environmentally friendly way.
Getting back outside is ‘great’
Fourth grader Anailah Delgado said the garden helps her learn about growing plants, and her favorite part is eating the food they pick. When she goes back to class after being in the farm, Anailah said she feels “great” and calm, happy and joyful. Anailah never farmed before she learned in school.
When the Fort Worth Report visited the garden on May 19, the students offered several vegetables to try including carrots, mint leaves, sugar snap peas and chives. All of which were delicious.
The charter schools want to be “the healthiest school district in the nation.”
Child Nutrition Program farmer Valerie Reed, who the students call Farmer Val, leads the students in tending to the garden.
Her hope is that when the students visit the grocery store with their parents, they ask for more vegetables because they’ve seen them in the garden.
Students like Kasey, who Reed calls her co-teacher because of his vast knowledge, have taken ownership of the garden. They’re proud to have a part in it.
IDEA campuses in other parts of the country have farms, but the Achieve campus is the only one in Tarrant County, Reed said.
One of IDEA’s goals is to be the healthiest school district in the nation, and the garden can help make that happen, Reed said. Students work in the garden once a week, but the campus wants to expand it to more by adding a junior master gardener course with curriculum from Texas A&M University’s program for young students, Reed said.
“They’re so joyful, they’re happy, and they’re so much more excited about vegetables here than they are in the cafeteria,” Reed said. “I really do feel like it is having a huge impact on the students’ lives. It’s the highlight of their week.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.