“We just knew the benefits of it and so, hence the Edible Classroom came to be formed.”
“We always incorporate the state standards and we’re very fortunate to be able to do that in a way that happens very organically, because everything that we do is really covered by a state standard.”
“The beauty of it is a garden can cover so many different bases and there’s so many opportunities for a variety of programs so we kind of have a little bit of everything.”
“And as children are in a controlled environment, many times where they are scheduled to do things, the outdoor environment allows freedom of exploration, freedom of observation, that culminates just good mental health as they’re able to self-direct.”
“We can see the learning take place in the garden through the students’ hands-on application of a topic that they heard about and now they’re actually seeing in real life.”
“We are giving the children the opportunity to participate in the garden and we find across the board that their investment in the process will not guarantee that they like everything, but it will open the door to curiosity, to maybe trying what it is that they’ve been tending and watering.”
“We see the impacts all the time and just, those are very meaningful to us and what we do and reinforcing that what we’re doing is really good for these kids.”
“We love to meet with schools to try to facilitate whatever it is they want to do.”
“Rather than head straight into a full-size garden, I think starting small will guarantee your success.”
“I love to plant and grow tomatoes and I always plant too many.”
“I love … gardening simply and picking something straight from the vine and popping it in your mouth is a very simple way to eat. And I appreciate that in our very busy lifestyles.”
Q: So let’s start by, if you wouldn’t mind telling us a bit about Edible Classroom and how you got started.
A (Grace): We’re a nonprofit organization and we exist to teach children where real food comes from. We partner with schools and communities in the area to develop learning gardens where the students can see and touch and feel, smell, taste, whole foods.
A (Beth): Yeah. So we got started, Grace and I had both independently started school gardens at our children’s elementary schools and served as the volunteer garden coordinators there. So we were able to see a garden start to finish from the ground up, which was incredibly important and influential in what we did later. But as we got through the process and saw not only the value of it, but also how much work it took, we realized that this could be more than just a volunteer position. And in fact, we started to research and found many organizations across the country, nonprofit garden organizations that we thought, “Okay, we need to bring this to Lancaster in a more formalized way.” And we just knew the benefits of it and so, hence the Edible Classroom came to be formed.
Q: Great. In what year did Edible Classroom formally begin?
A (Grace): That’ll be 2017, in the spring of that year.
Q: Great. What are the ways that you might work with a school district and K through 12 aged students?
A (Grace): Right. Many of our schools look at the school garden as an onsite field trip for seed to harvest activities, as well as that refreshing brain break from the inside the classroom to the outside the classroom for students to explore and observe what’s happening in nature.
A (Beth): And so we provide regular garden education sometimes during the school day and we always try to… Well, we always incorporate the state standards and we’re very fortunate to be able to do that in a way that happens very organically, because everything that we do is really covered by a state standard, whether it be science. Even starting with a seed packet, when you look at the seed packet and we’re teaching the children to read the seed packet for the planting depth, for the days to harvest, and calculating that. The nutritional value of the vegetables covers a food science standard so we’re integrating the science, the math, the nutrition. We do a lot of literature-based reading, read alouds with the children. And there are just… Everything that we do is really just covered in the state standards without us having to really work to get it in there. It naturally fits, so we work in that way.
A (Grace): And most of our programs culminate with the eating element, thus the Edible Classroom is our name and that’s something that all children enjoy.
Q: Absolutely. It’s a motivator, even if they don’t, at the beginning understand that they might be interested in the other aspects of it.
A (Beth): Right. And we also offer garden camps, afterschool garden clubs, and then a variety of programs that are customized to really whatever a school wants or to whether another organization, an outside organization might want. So we do a variety of programs and we always have those similar elements, that’s the aiding component is huge and the educational piece comes with the territory. As we’re talking about gardening, the kids are learning without even knowing they’re learning. So, really the beauty of it is a garden can cover so many different bases and there’s so many opportunities for a variety of programs so we kind of have a little bit of everything.
Q: Neat. So, I think on your website, I read a bit about self-esteem, right. And so how does involving children in gardening improve self-esteem? How does it relate to that?
A (Beth): Right. Well, there’s definitely research that shows that gardening and outdoor education promote self-esteem. I was just actually looking at a book that I had read a long time ago by Richard Louv called Last Child In The Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. And he speaks to the way nature impacts just our emotional health and our emotional wellbeing by connecting us to the world around us. And as children are in a controlled environment, many times where they are scheduled to do things, the outdoor environment allows freedom of exploration, freedom of observation, that culminates just good mental health as they’re able to self-direct. And we all know, and I think people are coming to realize even more so, the mind-body connection. And so any wellness activity, anything that is good for our body health-wise is going to be good for our emotional and our mental health. And so we see it with the kids in the garden. We see when they make connections, how kids that may not normally love to learn by reading in a book or writing, make the connection by growing something, nurturing something and gaining confidence through doing that.
Q: And also, let’s talk about the science achievement scores. Is there a correlation between K through 12 students being involved in such a program and then actually on the science achievement side?
A (Beth): Yes. There are documented research studies that show a correlation between higher science achievement and learning in a garden or having the garden as a teaching tool. And so it’s actually one of the goals of ours to measure even more so, as we can, being relatively new and then with COVID taking some things out of the loop. We’re really working to see how we can better measure what we’re doing. And so, as we are having these opportunities to repeat with schools and spend more time within the schools, we hope to evaluate that for ourselves. But we do know that when kids are learning hands-on, they’re going to retain it so much better than if they’re just listening to it in a traditional classroom. And both of them are important and work hand in hand. So, we can see the learning take place in the garden through the students’ hands-on application of a topic that they heard about and now they’re actually seeing in real life.
A (Grace): Many of our teachers that we work with comment how appreciative they are of, say, they just finished a lesson on seed germination and here we are out in the garden, watering our little seedlings that just germinated from the last week when they were out planting. And so, it’s a really nice layering of the education they’re receiving in the classroom.
Q: And so we’ve talked about sort of the academic piece to some degree and the self-esteem piece. And then there is clearly a health benefit for the long term. This broader understanding of healthful foods that may or may not be something that’s being taught in every home, so it’s hopefully bringing that information into a child’s life for the long term, just from having that experience.
A (Beth): I have to just say this morning, in one of our programs, we harvested lettuce and spinach and carrots and beets from the garden and we made salads and it was 23 children that came to this community garden space. And every single one of them tried the salad and seemed to enjoy it. Everybody finished their salad. We didn’t make them huge. And we were able to then connect and say, “Okay. Did it taste a little bit better because it was fresh from the garden?” And then we also were able to talk about the nutritional value of the things that we eat. And we talked about things that are good to eat all the time and things that maybe you want to reserve to some of the time so that the kids…
I said, “Try to keep moving things into the things that I should eat all the time, fresh fruits and vegetables. And some of the things that you might really enjoy, the sodas or the McDonald’s or whatever, try to move those into the some of the time.” And so we were able to talk about the nutritional benefits and good fuel for our bodies that help us feel better. And they were very responsive to that. It was really neat.
Q: A nice way to introduce those vegetables that some kids are not as fond of. And so, since you began in 2017, what are some of the Edible Classroom’s biggest impacts or accomplishments, if you have any that you can identify?
A( Grace): Spring boarding off what Beth just said, I think some of our biggest impacts are evidenced in the conversations we have with children right out there in the school garden. Marley is a little fourth grader that last year said, “My mom’s going to be so surprised. I liked everything here and I never eat vegetables at home.” And so here we are giving the children the opportunity to participate in the garden and we find across the board that their investment in the process will not guarantee that they like everything, but it will open the door to curiosity, to maybe trying what it is that they’ve been tending and watering. We’ve been harvesting broccoli because tis the season here in our school garden and a little girl just this week said, “I like it this time.” She had tried broccoli before on other occasions, didn’t like it, but this time after we planted it, watered it, read a book about it, she was more inclined to try it and she ended up being the last to try it at the tasting table, because she was anxious to try more.
Q: That’s pretty funny. I mean, first of all, the freshness, as you’ve mentioned before the freshness, I don’t think that can be beat. And then having her hands on the actual process of growing, I’m sure had some incentive there.
A (Beth): That’s on the individual level, we see the impacts all the time and just, those are very meaningful to us and what we do and reinforcing that what we’re doing is really good for these kids. We knew it already, but just hearing that, but on a broader scale, when we look at the amount of produce we harvested last year over the summer and fall, almost 900 pounds of produce, 854 pounds. And we’ve harvested more than that in the past too. So, that is food that we are sending home with kids to their families, for them to enjoy. We’ve been able to share it with food banks. We’ve been able to share it with apartment complexes. We’ve been able to partner with other organizations to help meet that need as well. And we were able to offer an outdoor classroom in the fall during COVID for parents who were looking for something when their kids weren’t in school.
Some kids were in school for two days and were out for three, so we offered an outdoor classroom so that they could have a meaningful place to go and could still do their schoolwork. We facilitated that, but then had the garden component as well. So, those are ways that we feel have been so beneficial to build our community too. It goes beyond, we have the micro level that Grace shared and it just kind of fingers out into the community with the families and then the broader organizations and businesses that might be interested in what we’re doing.
Q: And so, that brings me kind of to my next question. If a school district is interested in working with you to get a program started, how do they begin? Where should they go?
A (Beth): Well, on our website, there’s a contact form. They can look at WWW.THEEDIBLECLASSROOM.ORG, and there’s a contact form on there and our information is on there as well to reach out. And we love to meet with schools to try to facilitate whatever it is they want to do. We know that many schools want to get started and aren’t sure how, and it was actually a catalyst for why we started an organization because many schools want to do this and don’t have the time because they have so many responsibilities. So, we are able to come in and direct the conversation to do what they want to do and partner with them if they’d like our help, or if they’d like to go it alone, we can help facilitate that depending on their volunteer base. Or we can do a combination of the two and really customize to what they would like. So, it all starts at that first meeting and just hearing their vision and then putting the pieces together for them.
Q: Okay. And you mentioned that there are summer camp programs, things like that. And then at home, if parents want to begin gardening with their children at home, do you have any suggestions for how to begin that in sort of a manageable way? And the reason I say manageable is if there’s a family that doesn’t already have a garden begun, how can they get started and kind of what’s the ideal month to begin? Do you have any suggestions in that area?
A (Grace): Yeah. We think starting small is always a good thing to do. So your family could pick a favorite vegetable to grow this year. It’s not too late now. This is a good time too. You’re in the beginning of summer to start these warm season crops. Pick your favorite and either start it from seed or purchase a plant at a local nursery. And if you don’t have a place on your property where you can grow in the ground, you can easily start some crops in a container on a sunny patio or a porch.
Q: That sounds simple enough.
A (Grace): Yeah. Rather than head straight into a full-size garden, I think starting small will guarantee your success. And you mentioned the best time to plant here. At the Farmer’s Almanac and my grandmother would always say after Mother’s Day is the best time to start these warm season crops. But I know I personally was out in the middle of February planting my peas just because I like to experiment. And that’s traditionally a little bit early to plant your peas, but mid to end of February, we can start planting some of those early cool season crops, like your leafy greens and lettuces.
Q: Okay. I didn’t realize that. And so in your own gardens, just out of curiosity, what is your favorite thing to plant and grow, if each of you would answer that?
A (Beth): I love to plant and grow tomatoes and I always plant too many. And you would think after years of doing this that I would stop planting so many, but I just can’t help it. So, we love to make fresh salsa, so having the tomatoes for fresh salsa and fresh tomato soup and fresh tomato sauce. So, the tomatoes are so versatile that way and it’s something that everybody in our family loves the fresh salsa, so that’s a winner. And everybody likes tomato sauce too, so the tomatoes are a win-win and they yield a lot for a long period of time. And they’re not too terribly labor-intensive to harvest where peas and beans are. So, they’re nice vegetable all the way around. They’re actually a fruit, but…
Q: Yeah. And so how about you, Grace? What do you like to plant and grow?
A (Grace): I definitely go back to this mid-February planting of peas because at the end of winter I am ready to get out and dig in the dirt. So, sugar snap peas are my favorite. They never make it into the kitchen. We eat handfuls straight in the garden and enjoy them that way. I love things… I love simply… gardening simply and picking something straight from the vine and popping it in your mouth is a very simple way to eat. And I appreciate that in our very busy lifestyles.
Q: Yeah, absolutely. That’s great.
Grace’s love for gardening, dedication to teaching, and enthusiasm to work collaboratively have culminated in the foundation of The Edible Classroom. With education from Penn State Extension’s Master Gardener program and Longwood Gardens, she enjoys bringing science to life in the garden. Years serving as an Envirothon Coach and a Camp Director solidified her joyful education philosophy. Creatively engaging the minds and hands of students as co-founder of The Edible Classroom is her passion. Grace’s gardening adventures have taken her across Lancaster County, allowing her to “dig in the dirt” with children, senior citizens, and all ages in between. Grace lives in Washington Borough with her family.
As cofounder of The Edible Classroom, Beth believes that fostering curiosity in the garden and sharing new food experiences are opportunities that all children should enjoy. Her own journey into school gardens began almost ten years ago when her children were in elementary school. After several years as a middle school teacher, her focus shifted from the walls of the traditional classroom to the experiential world of the garden classroom. Working with young people, collaborating with the community, growing food, and spending time outdoors continue to bring her great joy. Beth resides in Conestoga with her husband, Mike, their three children, and their dog.