School farms and gardens are on the rise in New Jersey and are helping children understand where their food comes from – especially those who may be several generations removed from agriculture. In addition, participation in school farms and gardens is helping students develop healthy eating habits.
According to Carolyn Taylor, program director of Learning Through Gardening with the New Jersey Agricultural Society, children are more likely to eat new fruits and vegetables when they grow them at school.
“This is especially important in urban areas, where childhood obesity is a particular problem and children often have little access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Taylor says. “We have also seen children take home the lessons they learn about the nutritional value of fresh fruits and vegetables. They influence their families to eat more fresh produce as well.”
Established in 2002, the Learning Through Gardening program offers New Jersey preschools and elementary schools grants to build school gardens. The program provides participants lesson plans and needed supplies to build a garden, including raised beds, soil, hand tools, soaker hoses, and seeds and seedlings for three growing seasons a year. Grants last three years, and during that time, schools continue to receive supplies and curriculum.
“In the current educational environment that focuses on core curriculum, we know that teachers have little time in their busy schedules to add anything new,” Taylor says. “That’s why we provide teachers with curriculum and training, showing them how the garden can be used to teach every subject, including math, language arts, social studies and science. Teachers are more likely to use the garden when they can teach their everyday lessons with it, and then students have more opportunities to visit the garden for hands-on learning.”
The state’s largest school farm is in Morristown at Alexander Hamilton School. Known as the Urban Farm, it serves the 5,200 students in the Morris School District, plus area colleges and the local community. Designed as an educational farm, it includes diverse crops raised in beds that are easily accessible to children. Colorful signs mark the crops in both English and Spanish.
Most of the farm’s food is donated to local charities, while the rest is priced affordably and made available to the community through farm stands and the area’s Community Supported Agriculture program.