Clovis News

Valley kids find fruitful labor in school gardens

More than a dozen McLane High School students voluntarily showed up on a recent Saturday to work in their school garden -- a mix of mostly vegetables growing in dirt where blades of the old Bermuda-grass yard keep invading.

Art teacher Matthew Marhenke, a farming enthusiast, leads the charge as students work on the 50-by-50-foot piece of property located at the south end of the central Fresno school and protected by a fence. Carrots, cilantro, eggplant and corn are just a few of the vegetables students are growing.

It's one of an increasing number of school gardens in California -- despite the disappearance of state grant money that helped many get started.

The California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom estimates there are some 6,000 school gardens in California -- double what existed six years ago. The gardens range from rows of a few small plastic potting containers to several acres. Costs range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.

In the Valley, most school districts have some form of a school garden. Fresno Unified has about two dozen school gardens. Clovis Unified has 12 elementary school gardens and Central Unified in Fresno has gardens at two campuses. Catholic high school San Joaquin Memorial in Fresno has a student-run garden.

Gardens are even sprouting in preschools -- La Colonia Head Start Center in Parlier has plans under way for a school garden.

The popularity of school gardens has increased in large part because of a push to familiarize children with healthy food to help combat child obesity -- an issue recently spotlighted by first lady Michelle Obama, who helped plant a garden at the White House.

In 2007-08, the California Department of Education awarded more than $10.8 million to nearly 4,000 schools to start or maintain school gardens -- an effort championed by the state's first lady, Maria Shriver.

At least half the schools that received funding have gardens, said Deborah Beall, consultant in the state education department's nutrition services division; she said the state doesn't keep an exact tally.

The funding went away because of the state's budget crisis, but many gardens continue to flourish.

McLane was awarded garden grant money, but didn't use it.

Then Marhenke spent several hundred dollars of his own money to get a garden going last spring.

Students at McLane said they are learning about responsibility and take pride in watching their crops grow bigger each day.

"One time we grew a big zucchini, it was that big," said 17-year-old Cynthia Villareal, spreading her hands wide in demonstration.

The students are part of an art class taught by Marhenke, who grows his own vegetables and fruit at his home in the foothills community of Dunlap, east of Fresno.

The students are using some of their crops as subjects for paintings in art class. They made cement steppingstones for the garden, and they are hand-painting colorful garden signs.

"We have explored the natural connection between the visual arts and gardening, but want to do more with science and health connections," Marhenke said.

"Students have learned that vegetable gardening can be rewarding, and that there is always work to be done," he said. They are also learning that gardening can be fun, Marhenke said.

The students are protective of their garden. Donnell Foster, 18, said students who are not involved in the project have tried to mess up the garden. He has confronted a few and said they back off when they learn about the hard work the students have put into it.

"It's not just our garden, it's McLane's garden," said Danielle Fonseca, 18.

The students have grand plans: a better fence to prevent vandalism; a McLane Farm Stand to sell produce; maybe even a cookbook.

Even though state funding has gone away, there are organizations awarding money for school gardens.

The Irvine-based Western Growers Foundation has funded 389 school gardens in California and Arizona since 2003, including four in Fresno County.

It awarded $1,400 to Burroughs Elementary, $1,000 to Lincoln Elementary and $1,000 to Roosevelt Elementary, all in Fresno.

In January, the foundation gave $600 in cash, $600 in educational resources and an irrigation kit, tools and raised garden bed to help start the garden at La Colonia Head Start in Parlier.

Foundation administrator Briana Lewis said her group's vision is a garden in every school.

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