Even in Alabama, where agriculture is the state’s No. 1 industry, most children are two or three generations removed from farming. Many don’t know where food comes from, and some children cannot identify basic fruits or vegetables.
But a school in Mobile County is fighting that trend, and instead of using textbooks and the Internet to teach students about the scientific method, biology and nutrition, they’re getting their hands dirty — with real soil in an actual garden.
“We wanted an environment where kids could grow their own food and learn how to eat healthy,” said Jenny Jernigan, a third-grade teacher at Dawes Intermediate School. “It has been tremendous to watch these kids experience hands-on learning.”
For the past four years, each class at Dawes Intermediate had its own raised-bed garden, and students spend time with their small plot of land almost daily. At the beginning of the school year, students learn how to weed, till and fertilize their gardens. They plant seeds, watch them grow and learn what it takes for their gardens to thrive.
“The garden really shows the students how the scientific method works — they’re doing real research,” Jernigan said. “We even keep one plant inside and compare it to what’s growing outside to teach them about controls in an experiment.”
Jernigan and her students’ garden is thriving this year, in large part because of supplies donated by Alfa Agent Raymond Burroughs, whose daughter Brooke is in Jernigan’s class.
“He gave us all of our shovels, rakes, starter plants and gloves for each child,” Jernigan said. “And I think that really helped us get off to a good start. Our garden is doing great, and it was because we got the soil ready first.”
Burroughs said this is his daughter’s first year at the school, and he was impressed with the garden program.
“I just thought it was good that they’d teach these kids a little bit of the back-to-basics of learning,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised they’d devote an area like this to farming and teaching kids that not all food comes from a fast food restaurant.”
In addition to experiencing the hard work it takes to grow their own food, students at Dawes get to enjoy the fruits of their labor at harvest time. Even at an age when many children have picky palates, Jernigan said her students eagerly sink their teeth into all kinds of fresh vegetables.
“We eat them in class, and they just can’t wait to try food they’ve grown,” she said. “We also buy produce from the grocery store and let them compare. They’ll say, ‘My tomato from the garden is so much better than the one from the store,’ and we ask them, ‘Why do you think it tastes better?’”
Third grader Bailey Sheffield said working in the garden is one of her favorite school activities.
“It’s so astonishing to plant the plants and watch them grow, and it’s fun trying the food,” she said. “I’ve planted some flowers, and I planted some lima beans and cabbage for my mom.”
Jernigan said the gardens are funded completely by donations and the school’s PTA. Most students at the school couldn’t afford to participate otherwise, she said.
“It’s so important that every child is part of it and that they don’t have to pay a penny for it,” Jernigan said. “It is so appreciated by the students and the parents. We do a survey every year, and there’s a section for comments. One of the parents’ favorite things about our school was that their child got to be part of the gardening program.”