TRENTON — When Teresa Gray, head cook at Trenton Elementary School, says she is “going grocery shopping,” everybody knows she will be back in a couple of minutes because she is only going no farther than the outdoor garden or greenhouse in front of the school.
Depending on what’s ripe and what she needs for the salad bar or the dish she is making for lunch, Gray will come back to the kitchen with tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onions, cabbages, squash, zucchinis, potatoes, peppers or melons.
It’s part of the school’s Farm to School Program, which engages students in the growing and harvesting of food and promotes healthy eating.
“Our objective is to integrate the greenhouse and garden into our school culture and into what the kids are learning in the classroom,” said Whitney Ciancetta, Trenton Elementary’s greenhouse and garden coordinator.
For example, she said, seventh-grade students last year used math to redesign the interior of the greenhouse to provide more growing space.
“That was really cool, putting real-life math right into the garden,” Ciancetta said.
Working with her this year is Nicole Gurreri, a member of FoodCorps, which is a branch of the AmeriCorps national service program. FoodCorps’s mission is to “connect kids to healthy food in schools.”
“We’ve started doing a monthly taste test with the kids,” Gurreri said. “The first one was during Maine Harvest Week [in late September], when we harvested spaghetti squash in the greenhouse and Teresa served it with marinara sauce in the cafeteria.”
Also for Maine Harvest Week, when the school celebrated the state’s agricultural bounty, sixth-grade students made zucchini bread.
“They were so excited,” Gray said. “They were like, ‘We made ‘em! You’ve got to try ‘em!’”
There’s also a “harvest of the month” program that Ciancetta started last year.
“We highlight a particular vegetable and one of the grades does a research project and puts up a display,” she said. “Then they choose a recipe to make, and the kids get to taste it and say whether they like it or not.”
This year, for the first time, winter crops can be grown in the greenhouse because Friends of Acadia provided funding for the installation of a heater.
“We’ve had our second-graders and fifth-graders planting seeds for things like kale and chard,” Gurreri said. “So, in the middle of the winter, we can advertise on our salad bar that we grew these in our greenhouse.”
Ciancetta said students in all the grades enjoy learning about the different types of produce and being involved in planting, tending and harvesting.
“It gives them a sense of pride, too,” she said. “When the second graders harvest carrots and then see them on the salad bar, they are really proud, and they try to get the other kids to eat them, too. They’ll say, ‘These are our carrots! We picked these yesterday!’”
Gray said she thinks students are eating more fresh vegetables than they did a few years ago, and she knows they enjoy being in the garden and greenhouse. So does she.
“It’s awesome having the greenhouse here; I love it,” she said. “And we’ll be making the garden beds even bigger next year. I can’t wait.”