15 Minutes in a School Garden

Guest Blog by Sunny Young, Program Director of Good Food for Oxford Schools and EduFood Consulting LLC

  • Hero Stories
  • February 25, 2015
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Spend just 15 minutes in a school garden, and you will see how easy it can be to get kids excited about vegetables. Observe a 15-minute trip outdoors where kids can get their hands dirty, care for something other than themselves, take in some Vitamin D, and you'll witness the instant connection kids make with their food. School food reform is a daunting concept. Many small pieces woven together make up the best, most comprehensive programs. But it is good to often reflect on how easy the concept can be as well.

When I moved to Oxford, Mississippi in August of 2012, many friends and family warned me of the challenge I was up against. The state of Mississippi holds the title of most obese children in the nation, and even in Oxford—a prosperous college town—we're seeing kids as young as five with type II diabetes. But kids are kids wherever you go, and I moved to my new home with optimism that school food reform and gardens could make a difference. 

Once there, I worked with a group of stakeholders from the Oxford community and school district to help start a program called Good Food for Oxford Schools (GFOS). GFOS combines work in the cafeterias, classrooms, and community to holistically address the childhood obesity crisis. Oxford would prove to be the perfect launch city for a project of this kind, thanks to the University of Mississippi community and a forward-thinking school district, one with the highest rankings in the state.

To create change in the cafeterias, the food service director and I got together to transition to a scratch-cooked menu, using recipes from the Mississippi Department of Education and The Lunch Box. We also began purchasing local foods for menus and initiated Harvest of the Month, an ongoing event, which features a local product each month of the school year.

We knew that we would not be successful without also teaching students and families about the importance of eating good food. We therefore threw community-wide events such as our Fall Harvest Festival, Gospel Choir Showcase, and a cooking class series—all in an effort to involve families in learning and participation. 

By far, one of the most rewarding aspects of the project has been our work with classrooms. We started small, and mostly taught nutrition education with two interested teachers. It became apparent that to move forward and have a larger impact, we needed school gardens to serve as an outdoor classroom…and to get these students' hands in the dirt. I was hesitant to start school gardens because I had very little gardening experience. In addition, one of the district schools had a classroom garden project fail, leaving holes of dirt behind the playground. I certainly did not want to start something that would end up as an eyesore. So we turned to the teachers. By identifying teachers who were interested in healthy food, we had automatic buy-in, which led to an excited principal and group of students. We started with 15 minutes in the garden, which may seem brief, but to a teacher who is balancing curriculum requirements and rowdy students, 15 minutes holds a lot of potential. 

It all came together when we took students out to the small 5’x5’ plots for the first time at Oxford Elementary (built by our crew along with University of Mississippi volunteers over a weekend). Eyes wide, students explored, ooh-ed and ahh-ed, were eager to work, and most importantly, eager to eat. Thanks to the commitment of this initial group of teachers and the enthusiasm from the students, the GFOS garden projects grew within in a year from six to thirty overflowing plots across four schools.

What was once a cringe-worthy effort to convince students to try Swiss chard during a cafeteria taste test, transformed to fighting over every last piece plucked by their little hands from the garden. In the school garden, magic happens and students will eat anything they grow.

​In just 15 minutes at a school garden, I have seen children and adults amazed to learn that carrots grow in the ground; I have seen a rambunctious group of 20 second graders carefully and peacefully divide the five strawberries they grew among the group; I have seen sad students become happy when they learn it's okay that their broccoli bolted, because you can still eat the flowers. These are just some examples of the magical moments that happen in the school garden. 

Each piece of Good Food for Oxford Schools is integral to the process of comprehensive change in the way our kids eat. Working in all three fields—cafeteria, classroom, and community—makes GFOS a strong force. Students are now seeing vegetables in a whole new light and bringing the excitement of eating well home to their families.

Yes, school food reform is hard; it’s a big task that needs comprehensive, holistic programs to fix. It’s easy to get caught up in the big picture and big change. But small steps make a big difference, and just 15 minutes in a school garden can reaffirm the purpose of it all.     

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