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Roswell students learn healthy habits through Extension vegetable garden

ROSWELL, N.M. - Not all food that ends up on the dinner plate comes from a can or a box. Elementary school students are learning, through a Cooperative Extension Service program, just how much agriculture supplies what they eat every day.

Third-grade students at Pecos Elementary School, in Roswell, take time out of a recent morning to pick green beans in the garden they are taking care of on school grounds. Chaves County Extension agents are helping the students grow a variety of vegetables and flowers, and are also teaching them about eating healthy foods as part of the ongoing project.(Photo by Audry Olmsted)

"They have no earthly idea how much agriculture affects their lives," said Janelle Duffey, 4-H extension agent in Chaves County.

Throughout the state, children are taking a hands-on approach to learning where their food comes from, and are picking up some life skills along the way.
Second- and third-grade students at Pecos Elementary School, in Roswell, are tending six garden beds at their school, and they get to take home the fruits of their labor.

Their garden consists of snap green beans, zucchini, yellow squash, okra and sunflowers.

Sandra Key Barraza, the agricultural extension agent in Chaves County, said they were able to provide the garden through a mini-grant from the State Legislature targeted for 4-H outreach programs.

Barraza said the Chaves County Master Gardeners helped design the garden and put it together during the students' spring break of this year. In April, the seeds were planted in the classroom. When the plants had grown, they were transferred outside to the garden.

During the summer break, Barraza said, the crops were taken care of by the Cooperative Extension Service. When school started up again at the end of June, the now third-grade students and a new batch of second-graders began full-time care for the garden that is rigged up on a drip system.

They are learning when the veggies are ready to be picked and how to care for their crop.

Educators with the Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition (ICAN) program have also gotten involved by going to the students' classrooms and teaching them how to properly prepare the food they have grown.

Originally, the teachers took the food home, prepared it, and brought it back to their students. Now, students and their families are taking the produce home to prepare for themselves.

"The principal was great. She was really receptive," Barraza said.

Barbara Ryan, principal of the elementary school, said many families receive commodities, and that most of those are canned goods. Rarely do the children get fresh produce as part of their meals.

"It's always canned. They (children) think everything comes from a can," she said.

By having the garden, the students have a tactile experience with the produce they are growing - they can see and feel the texture of the vegetables.

"It's really rewarding to see that," she said.

The students learn it is cheaper and healthier to have their own garden.

Barraza said they can show the children, "This is a can of green beans and this is where the green beans come from."

"The students have had a ball tending to their garden," she said.

Two third-grade students, Irma Ruiz, 8, and Jaime Valles, 8, both said they enjoyed taking care of the garden.

Irma said she learned how to tell when to water the vegetables and added that her favorite part was growing the sunflowers.

"I like it," she said.

Jaime said he learned to not pick the vegetables until they are ripe.

Barraza hopes to continue the program each year with the assistance of the Master Gardeners Program and possibly switch out the vegetables that are grown. The students gained information on what basic needs plants must have to grow, and were given seed packets and encouraged to garden at home.

Other counties in the state have similar projects happening, aimed at helping teach students about where their food comes from and how to eat healthy, as well as other goals.

The Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service is working in conjunction with Master Gardeners to have a summer garden project at the local Youth Development Inc. office. Ten to 15 children involved in the program learned about soil amending, weed identification and control, variety selection, watering and fertilizing schedule, vegetable diseases, insects and disease transmission. The vegetables that were grown were donated to local charities and food banks.

This is the third year that NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Las Vegas Memorial Middle School has worked on a garden project with seventh-grade students. The bulk of the produce grown is donated to the Salvation Army food basket program. Through the program, students learn about food production, choosing healthy snacks and charitable giving.

The Doņa Ana County Cooperative Extension Service is in the planning phases of creating a vegetable garden at Conlee Elementary School, in Las Cruces, to help teach children about nutrition and how to stay healthy. If the vegetable garden is successful, the program will branch out from the pilot school to other schools in the county.

The Bernalillo County Extension office has a 4-H Seeds program that works in conjunction with Master Gardeners to go into elementary classes where experts teach students about seed growth. Seeds are planted in all third-grade classrooms at schools that wish to participate in the program, and the students see the different stages of its growth. They learn the basics of botany and horticulture through the program, and the children get to take the young plants home to nurture.