Gardening is part of the curriculum at The STAR School on the western edge of the Navajo Nation. The pre- K through-8th grade school is an off-grid, solar-powered charter school and one of few schools in Northern Arizona that is certified to serve its own student-grown produce in the cafeteria. In the latest segment of Eats and Beats, stories about food and music, KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports it’s a way to get kids excited about science, nature…and even eating their vegetables.
April Willing and Robin David are cooks at the STAR School. They feed more than one hundred students and their teachers every day in the cafeteria, which is filled with noise as kids line up to grab their lunch trays. Today they’re serving lasagna, green beans, fruit, and Goldfish crackers. On Wednesdays the salad bar is stuffed with produce as local as it gets. The cooks use fresh fruits and vegetables from the school gardens whenever they can.
“Tomatoes and peppers and greens,” Willing says.
“Spices,” adds David.
It’s not just about healthy, fresh vegetables for lunch. It’s about giving kids a chance to grow and harvest the food they eat. Fifth graders Kristopher Kelly, Monroe Harvey and Nariyah Franklin-Sombrero are today’s tour guides. They’re excited to show off the greenhouse where plants sprawl over raised beds. Sunflowers grow in one bed. Another is filled with herbs: chives, sage, basil, dill and oregano.
“Here’s the tomatoes,” says Monroe.
“Squash—the other squash!” adds Kristopher.
Nariyah explains they’ve been tending the crops since kindergarten. Kristopher says, “My favorite thing about gardening is that you can plant vegetables and eat them in the cafeteria for lunch.”
Monroe says: “We love vegetables,” and then Nariyah interrupts: “We love vegetables but the one vegetable we all hate is actually Brussel sprouts.” Kristopher corrects her: “Zucchini!”
Studies collected by the National Farm to School Network show kids really do eat more vegetables when they grow the food themselves. That’s especially important in northeastern Arizona. Much of this region is a “food desert” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Patty Wiley, the school’s garden coordinator, says, “Unfortunately in this area there isn’t a lot of grocery stores, there’s not a lot of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, so to be able to provide that at the school is a huge step forward.”
A quarter of Arizona’s school districts participate in some kind of farm-to-school activity. But using their own garden produce in the cafeteria requires a special certification from the Arizona Department of Health Services. The STAR School was certified in 2015, after creating a food safety plan that includes strict requirements for watering, harvesting, and washing the vegetables.
“It’s happening, it’s becoming a little more trendy,” Wiley says about school gardens. “But, yeah, definitely the STAR School got certified pretty early on, and we’re trying our best to keep that going.”
Wiley says the gardens are outdoor classrooms, where kids learn about science, nature, and nutrition… and also try foods they normally wouldn’t touch. “Every time the 1st through 3rd graders would come to class they always wanted to eat the beet greens, and they would munch on beet greens as if they were little rabbits.”
T10: Today’s munching is on the spicier side. Nariyah, Monroe, and Kristopher are having a hot-pepper eating contest. Nariyah points out the colorful plant in the greenhouse: “We have these chili peppers that’s purple, red, yellow, orange. They’re hot!” The kids pluck peppers right off the vine.
“I’m going to try one,” Monroe says.
“Taste is hot and my mouth is watery,” says Nariah, crunching into hers.
The produce that doesn’t end up in the cafeteria goes to the school’s culinary class, where kids get to experiment with cooking different dishes. “In culinary,” Nariyah explains, giggling, “we get some zucchini and cooked it and put some tomato sauce…”
Monroe and Kristopher interrupt her: “You mean eggplants?”
“Eggplants!” she corrects herself. “You put that stuff on there and then you eat it and it’s good, it’s crunchy.”
All the kids agree gardening is hard work. But it’s also full of discovery and excitement, and best of all, delicious things to eat. “Eggplant pizza, that was good!” Kristopher says. Nariyah agrees: “It was actually pretty good.”