mofga logo                                           Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener June 2005 Edition
A Taste for Learning
By: Larry Lack

"We love being in the garden and really look forward to it. This is the most fun class we have" "We're so lucky to have a program like this." "Every Monday Sara S. and I take our fourth period to work in the greenhouse teaching younger kids about the garden. The kids love the food we grow...they are always asking to have a cherry tomato or a sugar snap pea.  Some even like the nasturtiums and eat those!"

These are a few of many rave reviews their school's food and garden program get from students at the Troy Howard Middle School (THMS) in Belfast. Teachers, administrators, parents and community groups are also enthusiastic about a program that produces more than 4000 pounds of food a year and has transformed the school's curriculum as well as student attitudes about eating, school and life.

Fruits and vegetables from the garden and greenhouse are featured on the salad bar in the school's cafeteria for most of the school year. School
grown crops are also regularly shared with the Belfast food bank, sold at the Belfast Coop store, and served to various community functions.

A cornucopia of produce, flowers and herbs-55 different crops in all-keep student gardeners busy with planting, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting.
Working in pairs or teams, the kids giggle and carry on like normal middle schoolers, but cheerfully complete their chores and  savor the results,
sharing fresh produce snacks among themselves and with visitors, sniffing and touching plants in the "sensory"garden, and fortifying themselves with one of a dozen herbal teas selected and fresh brewed from the tea garden.

Some students are special fans, volunteering in the gardens and greenhouse between classes or after school. "It's so peaceful", seventh grader Janet Mathieson said. "After all the noise and crowding inside, it's sweet being out here where there's no stress." In winter the big (35' x 48') mostly solar greenhouse is a warm and cheerful refuge from the cold. Kids show up to work on garden science projects, or just to do some watering or weeding, socialize and relax.

Highlights in the school garden year include creating gourmet pizza,  made entirely from school grown ingredients (the cheese is purchased, but the wheat for the crust is grown at the school  and hand milled by the students) and, each fall, the Maine Bean Hole supper, a family extravaganza where beans are slow cooked underground and served with a spread of other school grown delicacies.

From March until the school year ends students sell produce and flowers from the garden project after school from a farm stand in the school. (To strengthen their math skills, they are required to calculate their sales and make change by hand, without using a calculator.)

Although the crops grown in the garden and greenhouse at THMS are not certified organic, the growing methods used at the school are strictly
organic. No chemicals are used, and fertility is maintained with compost made from cafeteria and garden wastes. Insect pests are managed by using sticky traps, predatory insects (lady bugs and tiny encarsia formosa wasps) that students distribute and monitor, and a huge tobacco plant in the greenhouse that attracts scale insects and aphids that would otherwise attack the stems and leaves of vegetables and flowering plants.

MOFGA and the midcoast organic community have helped nurture the THMS garden project since its inception four years ago. Produce grown by the students is displayed at the Common Ground Fair and has won numerous blue ribbons there. Students from the garden project interview produce vendors at the fair and use information gleaned from them to create and improve the school's evolving business plan for marketing its produce.

Organic dairy farmer Linda Hartkopf is a half time staffer for the garden project, linking it with the school's social studies curriculum through quizzes, games, field trips and special projects. This summer the school hopes to arrange for a MOFGA apprentice to work at the gardens, which until now have been maintained over the summer months by student and parent volunteers and project staff.

The garden project is interwoven with nearly every aspect of the seventh grade curriculum at THMS.  This year math teacher Dennis Nardone had
his seventh graders use their knowledge of  measurement and proportion to build scale models of the school's greenhouse. "They had to decide what materials to use," Nardone said as he showed off a display of the scaled down greenhouses in the school library, "and the creativity they brought to this assignment shows how the energy the (garden) project generates sometimes spills over into my classes-and other classes too, from what I hear."

Articles about the garden project and related topics are published  in "The Weekly Worm", a fact-filled but whimsical student publication. Art classes draw and paint garden plants and vegetables and students illustrate the seed packets that are sold by the school's seed company. As part of the pizza project, teams of students studying business draw up plans for hypothetical pizzerias, calculating their costs and estimating sales and profits.

Students also write letters to solicit in-kind and financial support for the garden project. Science classes measure sugar levels in plant foliage and
fine-tune fertilizer applications accordingly, while those studying forestry and native plants are creating a nature trail in the woods and wetlands
behind the school.

Computer classes learn how to use spread sheets to track school harvests and how they are distributed and marketed from year to year. In 2004 students in a media class produced an amazingly professional 45 minute DVD portrait of the garden project featuring student interviews and a soundtrack of garden songs. Maine history classes study the crops of early settlers, select and grow Maine "heritage" fruits and vegetables and report about who brought them to Maine and where they were first grown.

The successful garden project at THMS has brought media attention and kudos to the school, inspiring interest in the growing network of Maine school gardens, which now number over 80.

The two staffers who developed and oversee the project, now in its fourth year, have been critical to its success. Agriculture Program Coordinator Don White, a former special ed teacher, was raised on a Vassalboro farm. His dry sense of humor, unflappable good nature and playful enjoyment of both plants and kids are infectious, and put even the most challenged and difficult students at ease. White thinks that all students gain valuable academic skills and build real self esteem from the experiential learning offered by the garden project.  "Growing and preparing  food they enjoy and share with
others," he says, "really gives them a sense of accomplishment, and you can see how this opens them up."

Steve Tanguay, the social studies teacher who steers the academic side of the project, also gets high marks from students, some of whom have requested placement in his garden-centered home room. Tanguay's social studies classes explore how food systems and natural resources shape the character of societies. His classwork reinforces the garden project's "hand on"approach with projects like making paper from watermelon rinds.

The small office White and Tanguay share is constantly crowded with students asking questions, and having fun with the pair of  teachers whose initiation and dedicated leadership of the garden project earned them a national Excellence in Teaching Agriculture Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2004.

Judging from what the students say, the THMS garden project is altering
their attitudes about food and steering some of them toward more nutritious diets. Students we met during our two visits to the school told us they now love fresh fruits and vegetables they seldom ever ate before, and that they are avoiding or cutting down on junk food.. Several said they are helping more with family gardens or have started or plan to start gardens of their own, and some mentioned that they are considering plant or food related

The mission statement of the Troy Howard School garden project says its goal is "to grow empowered, academically successful young people." The delicious school grown foods we sampled, the scale model greenhouses and garden-inspired artwork we saw, and the funny and thoughtful articles we read in "The Weekly Worm" suggested that this was not mere rhetoric. But more than anything else, the caring relationships and positive team spirit that

Steve Tanguay and Don White have nurtured around the growing, preparing, and sharing of food may be the most important key to the learning that is so manifestly blooming and growing at this big middle school.

The Troy Howard Middle School garden project is an amazing and exuberant community laboratory of youthful experimentation in food for thought, food for the soul.

For more information about the THMS garden project, email, write to the project at 173 Lincolnville Ave., Belfast, ME 04915, or call  (207) 338-3320, ext. 124.

Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture:
2004 National Award Winners
United States Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Services