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Garden aimed at healthy eating
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MONROE - If kids knew where fruits and vegetables came from, they'd be more willing to try them.

That's the theory Eric Ekum, food service director for the Monroe School District, is operating on for starting a district-wide, gardens-in-schools program.

"I think if we got back to the basics, it would be easier to introduce new foods to the menu," he said.

Ekum tries to serve different vegetables in the schools' lunches, but many children are reluctant to eat them, because they don't know what's on their plate, he said.

"There's a lack of awareness," he said.

To help promote such awareness, Ekum, along with teachers Lynda Miller, Ann Prophett and Carmen Montgomery, are developing a school garden project to begin this spring at Parkside Elementary School.

The project is an extension of a school garden that Prophett started in 2007 - for her fifth-graders at Abraham Lincoln Accelerated Learning Academy. Now they're working to expand the project into all the schools in the district.

Miller will start this winter by creating hanging cherry tomato baskets in her fifth-grade class at Parkside.

"The students are excited," she says, adding she hasn't told them about the bigger project coming.

A container garden is being planned in a large, unused outdoor patio area in the middle of the school. Because of the school's unique design, the garden will be enclosed, safe from the ravages of rabbits and vandals.

Students also will be able to see their garden on their way to lunch, though large windows in the hallway.

"The garden is an extension of what Eric is trying to promote in the cafeteria," said Miller.

In the beginning, fifth-graders primarily will be responsible for planting and tending the garden. Miller said they will be role models for younger children to try new foods and make healthy choices.

Future plans are for each grade level to have a container of its own in the garden. And Monroe High School students will also be establishing a garden this spring.

Meanwhile, Montgomery's advanced horticulture students are tasked - as part of their curriculum - with planning both gardens.

Of course, school gardens won't produce enough food to use in the school lunches, Ekum said. But he envisions them sampling the organic garden vegetables they've grown, which will help them to make the connection between what plant and what they eat.

Fast-growing spring vegetables, lettuce, radishes, and green onions are being planned for the gardens. Even crops that don't ripen until summer won't go to waste.

Prophett is planning a summer school class for 4th-6th graders to harvest and cook the later maturing crops. The project needs some help from parents and the community, Ekum said, so as not to financially burden the school district.

To start the garden, Miller said they need top soil, seeds, gardening tools, fencing, and even wood to make raised beds. A little adult labor would go a long way toward the success of the gardens, too.

"We need gardeners to donate their time and knowledge," said Ekum.

"In the classroom and in the garden," Miller added.