DD2 garden program to harvest healthier kids

  • Thursday, July 18, 2013

Provided Teachers prepare the raised beds at Alston Middle School this summer in anticipation of the start of the school gardening program this fall.

Bobby Behr is on the move. In the spring, he pledged to bring all of Dorchester District Two schools into his school garden program and he is well on his way to doing so.
Behr, athletic director at Ashley Ridge High School, created the ARHS Farm to School program. Starting small, he has grown the school garden program into an entity that now supplies the school lunch program with healthy produce.
Behr’s vision doesn’t stop there. Behr has plans to change the face of school food, education and childhood obesity … across the state and perhaps beyond.
He is implementing step two this fall. Every school in the district will have a school garden. Some will be large and some quite small, but all will be growing healthy food and teaching students – from kindergarten through high school – what healthy eating is all about.
Eighteen percent of children in grades K-12 are overweight and 75 percent of high school recruits trying to go into the military are overweight. Vending machines in schools are full of sugar, fat and starch.
Childhood obesity is on the rise in the U.S. and South Carolina, says Behr. According to the Trust of America’s Health, South Carolina is now the fifth heaviest state.
This is going to change in DD2, if Bobby Behr has anything to say about it.
Expanding the program across the district is no easy task. At first Behr hoped that area farmers would step up and “adopt” a school to guide the creation and fruition of the school’s garden. However, farmers work full time and then some, struggling with weather and pests to earn a living so their time is limited, says Behr. “It wasn’t going to happen.”
Undeterred, Behr looked elsewhere and turned to the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Master Gardner program.
Enter Amy Dobbs, urban horticulture extension agent for the tri-county area. Dobbs has long been an advocate for youth involvement in gardening but has not had a real outlet for her interest. Now she does.
The enthusiasm bubbles between Dobbs and Behr as they share their ideas and plans.
They have created a course for teachers to help get the school programs up and running. This is a specialized training that takes into account the things schools face when growing produce that will end up in kids’ mouths. Such things as not using manure, making the creation and care of the gardens doable for teachers who have a full plate already, making it manageable, affordable and not overwhelming for teachers.
They have 31 participants from 18 schools – a mixture of teachers, administrators, maintenance staff, principals and coaches – all of whom have trained over five weeks to be ready for the fall garden. Most of the training has been on-line which has made it possible for these folks to easily take part, although there has been some hands-on training.
“I needed them to get their hands dirty,” says Behr. And they did setting up the raised beds.
The program is officially called School Yard Gardening for Lowcountry Educators and is the first in the state making an effort to get all the schools in the district involved. It is specific to the climate, soil conditions and weather peculiarities of the Lowcountry.
The online portion of the training is interactive through the Cooperative extension Master Gardener site.
The project is paid for by a $24,000 grant from Boeing administered by the College of Charleston.
Participants have learned no-till gardening techniques, “lasagna” gardening techniques, about irrigation, fertilization and chemical free gardening.
So in September, every school in DD2 will have a school garden. The largest, aside from ARHS, is 50-feet by 50-feet at the William Reeves Elementary School. Most are smaller with the smallest size being three feet by five feet. They are all raised beds.
The raised beds make the implementation of the program much easier for the schools. However they would have been cost prohibitive if Behr hadn’t discovered a local source … a sort of  “found object” that is easily put to a different use.
Grand Forest, Inc., of Summerville, imports Gränsfors Bruk Axes from Sweden as well as other equipment for loggers. The axes come in wooden boxes that are specially constructed, collapse and segue perfectly into use as raised bed sides. Bottomless, two boxes stacked make a perfect raised bed. Better yet, Grand Forest is donating them to DD2 schools. The boxes are also perfect for allowing each school garden to grow slowly, box by box, bed by bed.
Further, school waste streams are diverted to the garden using compost, shredded paper and cardboard, etc.  Bees Ferry Landfill, however, has donated the initial compost. It is the only compost supplier in the state approved for use in organic farming so its compost is safe for school children.
Lasagna gardening is based on the Lasagna Gardening book by Patricia Lanza and is simply a layered gardening method.
Key to the success of these school gardeners however, is not just the boxes or the method, but the partnership between the Master Gardener program and the schools. Each school will have its own Master Gardener to advise and assist, answer questions and give workshops.
It’s the perfect partnership say Dobbs and Behr.
“This will build sustainability into the program,” they say.
Master Gardeners have completed an intense Cooperative Extension course and are considered Extension volunteers. Through this program, a Master Gardener can adopt a school, earn continuing education hours (almost a year’s worth) and help children develop an appreciation for healthy food and a love of gardening.
Because the majority of Master Gardeners are retired, they have more time than working farmers to donate. They will operate on an advisory/coaching basis but are encouraged to offer a monthly hands-on class for school children around a gardening activity.
The produce from the school gardens will be given to each school’s cafeteria for use in school lunch.
Not only will students learn to garden, they will also learn about food safety. There is talk about getting an app for iPads called Garden Plan Pro that will enable the youngsters to plan their garden with dimensions, spacing and harvesting advice.
In the tri-county area, says Dobbs, there are some 300 Master Gardeners. In Dorchester County, there are about 160, most of whom are in the southern urban and suburban part of the county, perfect for DD2.
“Realistically,” Dobbs says, “we expect 10 or so to take this on.” Dobbs and Behr will cover the remaining schools.
This year’s Master Gardener training will have the school aspect incorporated into it so that the 30 to 40 some odd new trainees will be exposed to the opportunity to take on a school gardening project.
All Master Gardeners who work with young people have gone through a background check, Dobbs assures, so they are approved to work with the schools.
“Eventually we would like to see parents get involved,” says Dobbs.
“Because this project has come from within [the district] it is workable,” says Behr who noted there have been a lot of ideas that have been tried that are “awesome when they work and terrible when they don’t.”
“All of us working together will make this work,” he says.
“Making the effort to have kids at all levels not only learn to garden but learn where food comes from and introducing them to fresh vegetable eating, that’s the purpose of this,” says Behr.
Anyone interested in becoming a Master Gardener should go online to www.clemson.edu/extension/mg/mgonline.html or call 843-285-2180.
Anyone with residential gardening questions can call the Master Gardener office in Summerville at 105 Yancy Street at 843-285-2180.

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