The suburban kids at Parkland’s Westglades Middle School thought they knew where vegetables come from: the grocery, packaged in neat plastic wrapping.
Then they got down to the nitty gritty.
The 90-some students in Karen Malkoff’s eighth grade environmental science class are tending — and gobbling up — a bumper crop of vegetables they grew themselves on school grounds. The thriving patch proves there’s one way to get kids to eat their veggies: Let them grow ’em.
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“I thought I’m not going to like this class, I’m going to get my hands dirty,” said Niki Mondazze, 14. Now she loves to get down and dirty among the leafy green plants — and consume the fruits of her labor.
“When we started eating our work, I really liked the class,” she said. “My favorite things to eat are the peas.” That would be the snow peas, which Niki and her classmates pluck raw from the plant and pop in their mouths.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, attempting to curtail a growing obesity epidemic among youth, issued new rules requiring schools to offer healthier lunches, including increased servings of vegetables. With its garden of homegrown lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, squash, spinach, eggplant and myriad other veggies, Westglades Middle is cresting the healthy-eating wave.
The hydroponic garden, an oasis of green among gray metal portable classrooms, features 99 “towers” of nearly 500 foam pots stacked three to five high, each home to a plant. An overhead pipe network makes for an economical watering system, dripping onto the plants three times a day for four minutes at a time.
Inside the classroom, where they tackle standard book learning such as nutrition and environmental issues, the students also germinate their own seeds.
“They’re like really cute,” Rachel Kalidyn, also 14, said of the tiny green seedlings in her care. “We’re creating life.”
Principal Jack Vesey came up with the garden idea to give kids a taste of reality — and healthy eating.
“This is a lifestyle change for these kids,” Vesey said. “These kids have never even touched dirt before.”
Vesey and Malkoff calculated they needed $4,000 for material to start the garden. Then they set about raising the money. The school’s PTA came up with $2,000. Walmart Corp. donated $1,000, as did Wheelabrator Technologies, a Waste Management company with two facilities in Broward County. The Florida Farm Bureau kicked in $250.
Vesey and the students started digging out the garden under the hot August sun. “We literally built the thing from the ground up,” he said. “The girls were out here sweating their butts off.”
For Malkoff, the garden was familiar turf. “This is a passion, nature is a passion of mine,” she said. “All day long I’m out here.”
Earlier this month, the students picnicked on huge salads of their harvest, complete with dressing and garlic bread. “I’m not that big a salad eater, but I tried this and it was great,” said Haley Pszyk, 13.
Like any dedicated farmer, Vesey wants to share. He dreams of selling the students’ produce at weekend markets, from the counter of the front desk, or to parents in the car line as they pick up kids.
“If we get to that point,” he said, “I’ve hit nirvana.”
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