BY KATE POSS
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
October 26, 2016
While parents have long wondered how to get kids to eat their veggies, Cary Peterson has cultivated a simple solution that has students clamoring for “garden tacos” that they grow themselves in their school’s backyard.
A once-neglected half-acre of rubble behind the South Whidbey Elementary School now grows tidy rows of veggies, including kale and French sorrel, pumpkins, tomatoes, field peas, nasturtium, sunflowers, and ground cherries—sweet little globes wrapped in a papery skin that taste like tomatoes, pineapple, and mangos all in one. Students from kindergarten through fifth grade enjoy working the garden and harvesting the fruit of their labor in a program pioneered by Peterson, a master at creating community through the land.
Local filmmakers Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin were so inspired by the garden’s success that they made a documentary, “Cultivating Kids,” which shows at the Clyde Theatre, Sunday, November 6, at 2 p.m. The event is free, but donations are welcome and will go toward matching a $30,000 grant provided by Goosefoot, a South Whidbey nonprofit dedicated to building community, preserving rural traditions, adding to the local economy, and creating a sustainable future.
Matching grant funds come from profits made by The Goose Community Grocer, which works with Goosefoot. The school garden received nearly $45,000 in funding in 2014, more than $52,000 in 2015, and has a goal of $60,000 for 2016. The funds pay for garden materials and the salaries of Peterson and her team: a curriculum coordinator and two apprentices. Goosefoot made a three-year commitment to the project, and future funding needs to come from the community. So far, the garden program has received grants from Whole Foods, proceeds from the South Whidbey Garden tour, community donations, and volunteer hours.
“We heard about the farm and went to visit it,” said Young. “We were totally entranced.” Dworkin has worked as a projectionist at the Clyde for more than 40 years. He and Young have made more than 20 notable documentaries, which have been shown on PBS and distributed internationally. Young, a long-time gardener herself, said that she and Dworkin are interested in broad issues of social justice and sustainability. Such themes are reflected in their films, which include “Shift Change,” a documentary about employee-owned businesses. “Good Food,” which aired on PBS in 2010, celebrates the comeback of the family farm and the importance of eating local produce. “Cultivating Kids” is one of their latest films.
“There are a lot of problems in the world,” Young said, “If we’re going to make it a better place, we need to look at what makes a difference.”
The couple began filming in 2015 during the growing season. They filmed students working in the garden through spring, summer, and fall, culminating in a Thanksgiving feast.
The film is already attracting praise, such as that from Lauren Howe, director of the Slow Gardens program for Slow Food USA. “Cultivating Kids is the ideal film to show all stakeholders that are either considering a school garden or have an existing garden that is needing an infusion of excitement,” she says. “The South Whidbey Island (Washington) project shows how school gardens connect to all aspects of a school day to support academic success, healthy eating habits, and connections to nature. Parents, teachers, school administrators, and community members will all find a special connection in this film that will motivate them to support a garden program for their school. The students are the real stars. A must see!”
On a recent visit to the garden on a cool misty afternoon, Peterson pointed out rows of squash and pumpkins curing in a greenhouse, awaiting a student Thanksgiving feast November 17. “The pumpkins were planted by last year’s third graders, and this year’s fourth graders harvested them for pies,” Peterson explained. “The potatoes pulled by this year’s third graders were planted by the children last spring when they were second graders.”
Planting and harvest compliment student studies in math and science, Peterson explained. “We hold a picture of ‘Big Ideas’ for each grade.” The big ideas fostered for the elementary school students are like a foundation that gains strength as the children mature:
- Kindergarten and first grade: We connect to the living world
- Second grade: Soil nourishes life
- Third grade: Life thrives through its diversity
- Fourth grade: Our actions can support life
- Fifth grade: All life is interconnected
Peterson’s big ideas for linking community and locally-grown food were founded in the creation of the Good Cheer food bank garden and the community garden at the Whidbey Institute. That work evolved to include working with students at the Bayview Alternative High School to restore their garden. When the school moved to the old primary school site and became the South Whidbey Academy, Peterson was asked to get a garden going there. She thought it was essential to serve the produce grown in the garden to students in the South Whidbey School District.
Peterson consulted Chartwells, a corporate provider of school lunches nationwide, and together, they created protocols to ensure food safety. Now, South Whidbey School Farm and Gardens, sells its produce to Chartwells, which serves it at all schools in the South Whidbey School District. The student-grown produce also supplies Whidbey Island Nourishes, a nonprofit that provides food for needy students.
Meanwhile, a snack garden, which will provide healthy easy-to-pick veggies for the students’ snacks, is getting ready for spring. “The thing that distinguishes this garden, is that children can grow and eat their own food,” says Peterson. “This program happens due to the 150 percent support of the school and Goosefoot. What’s amazing is that these children know what a delicious carrot tastes like. That changes the system—to serve food that is delicious. It’s their benchmark. I think it’s a very powerful thing when it ripples out.”
- Preview the film “Cultivating Kids”
- Visit the school garden website.
- Learn about Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin’s other films.
- Learn more about Goosefoot.
Kate Poss worked as a library assistant at the Langley Library until last June. She was thrilled to work for three summers as a chef aboard a small Alaskan tour boat from 2008 to 2010. She was a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles for many years before moving to Whidbey Island where she likes “talking story,” hiking, hosting salons, and writing her novel.
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Really nice article, Kate. You captured both the facts and the heart of the program and the film.