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How does your garden grow?
Elementary students learn the value of nutrition through school gardens
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Students at Medeiros Elementary plant seeds to learn plant structure and what they need to grow (Photo contributed).

During the pandemic, Turlock Unified School District noticed that gardens at the elementary schools were unused due to a lack of students and personnel to attend to them. This provided the opportunity for high school Agriculture interns and the TUSD Farm to work together in bringing those gardens back to life before students returned to campuses this fall. During this process, it was noted that four of the elementary sites in the Turlock district did not have access to gardens on their campuses.

“Turlock Unified School District strives to educate all students through an equity lens, including access to live learning labs. With support of district personnel and the school board, the TUSD Farm and interns began to focus on how to implement gardens for all elementary sites,” said Coordinator of Environmental Studies and Applied Horticulture Hail Bream.

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Students at Julien Elementary learn nutrition facts and gain an appreciation for farming (Photo contributed).

The Turlock Unified School District was awarded the California Farm to School Incubator Grant to utilize in the 2021-2023 school years, and a portion of funds was specifically designated to improve elementary gardens. School sites with existing gardens were improved with soil additions, new hoses and nozzles, watering cans and other supplies needed. Agriculture summer interns and the TUSD Farm Coordinator researched and developed a plan to create mobile bucket gardens for elementary sites that did not have on-site garden access.

Using grant funding, materials were purchased and prepared with the help of the high school Ag education teacher cutting the lumber. American Ag Credit employees used volunteer hours to assist in building the mobile gardens at the TUSD Farm. The teamwork between local business support and high school agriculture programs helped the TUSD Farm make the elementary mobile gardens a reality.

According to Bream, school gardens are “live learning labs to teach STEM.” Teachers and/or staff can utilize gardens for science lessons, but gardens are also spaces to practice literacy and math skills. Social studies lessons can also be conducted within the garden. Various student grade levels at all elementary sites have been planting winter crops in their STEM gardens and learning about the needs of plant growth. At each level, the investigations become more in depth to address the standards that students are learning in the classroom:

· Kindergarteners are comparing the needs of plants and animals.

· First graders will make connections with their school gardens and the district’s Farm, observing plant trait variations.

· Second graders plan to conduct investigations to see if plants need sun and water to grow.

· Third graders are gathering evidence to explain how traits are influenced by the environment.

· Fourth graders are constructing arguments to show how internal and external structures help plants function.

· Fifth graders are designing experiments to prove that a plant’s needs are met through air and water.

· Sixth graders are creating scientific explanations for how genetic & environmental factors influence plant growth.

Produce from elementary gardens will remain at the sites for continued student learning labs. Students can conduct taste tests, explore nutrition through their gardens and gain appreciation for Farm to School production, according to Bream.

“Many students have not sampled the vegetables and/or fruits that they will be growing, and it is exciting to see students try new healthy foods that they produced,” she said.