When students at Nicholson Elementary go through the salad bar at lunch, they’ll dish up food grown right in the school’s backyard.

As part of a local farm-to-school initiative, the cafeteria will begin using vegetables planted by the students in Nicholson’s garden, demonstrating the process of cultivating food while encouraging children to practice healthy eating habits. 

“We found that if they planted it and weeded it, then they really buy in to trying it,” said Jerilyn Yerkes, leader of the school’s garden program.

The recent planting season created a bounty of cherry and grape tomatoes popular in the cafeteria line. Students also planted cucumbers, carrots, potatoes, bell peppers and beets. The school donated 250 pounds of food to FISH.

Students will harvest the rest of the crops this fall. Before the food could be picked, a plan had to be developed for safely handling and serving the produce.

The garden-to-cafeteria movement has gained traction in recent years as schools teach students how to plant food. 

“So if the kids are learning to garden, maybe they’ll start a garden at home and even show their parents how to garden,” said Holly Catron, community wellness coordinator for Purdue Extension.

Following a local food summit at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in 2018, a subcommittee of members from Purdue Extension, the Nicholson garden team, and school provider Chartwells began discussing getting food from Nicholson’s garden into the cafeteria. The extension’s Master Gardeners assists students in planting and harvesting the crops. 

Chartwells resident dietitian Tarrah McCreary had started a similar program in Beech Grove, where fifth graders in the salad bar marveled at watermelon radishes grown in their school’s garden.

“They were willing to try the salad because they… know that radish was the one they’d harvested,” said McCreary, who leads school cooking demonstrations and taste tests of new menu options.

A summer educational program taught horticulture skills and served lunch to children at the Crawfordsville Community Garden. Funding was received from Purdue Extension.

In the future, the team envisions gardens being planted at the other Crawfordsville schools and food obtained from farmers in the school district.

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