North Belt Elementary garden gives lessons on health and nutrition

"We just get our bodies moving and our energy flowing so that we're ready for the day," she said. 

When McDonough-Davies found out about that American Heart Association had a Teaching Garden program, she jumped at the chance to expand their existing plant boxes into the next big thing on campus.

"We had plant boxes and grew radishes and cabbages, but not a lot," she said. "We thought this would be a fantastic."

A new teaching garden is now part of the landscape at North Belt Elementary School in the Humble school district. The outdoor classroom is expected to set the stage for lessons on science as well as health and nutrition.

McDonough-Davies went into action. First the school had to qualify for the garden project by completing the rigorous application process.

"There were a lot of criteria," she said. "There had to be a water source and enough space for nine plant beds. It just so happened we had the perfect space on the east side of campus and we had nothing there."

She said the extra work applying for the grant was worth the effort. Not only would kids get to experience the life cycle of plants up close, but they would also gain access to fresh produce. 

McDonough-Davies said that 90 percent of the campus is economically disadvantaged.

"Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is not something all of our students get to do," she said. "We're really excited that they are getting to harvest vegetables. We hope it will help foster healthy eating habits with our kids and their families too."

The big harvest is planned for December and children will be allowed to take home what they grew. 

In the meantime, each grade level is being given a plant box. 

The students will chronicle the progress of the garden in their journals. 

"We expect this to be a true outdoor laboratory," McDonough-Davies said. "I've learned from my students that many do not spend a lot of time outside. Many do not get to outside to play. Just giving them this space will be important. It will become theirs."

She hopes to partner with Boy Scouts and other community volunteers to expand the garden even more, adding benches and more plant beds.

"I want this to be big," she said. "We have great hopes for our garden."

Meg Knight, senior director of Medicare service operation with Aetna, said the company has already partnered with the American Heart Association on 17 different teaching gardens. 

"Aetna has a strong commitment to volunteering in communities where we live and work," she said. "We feel it's our responsibility to help people live healthier lives."

Knight added that North Belt stood out in the application process.

"North Belt was a particularly good fit for us," she said. "They have a strong science program, and we knew we'd have the educational component in there."

Knight said the goal of the garden program is to battle childhood obesity and change the way children think about food. 

"We really want to encourage healthy eating in elementary students," she said. "They can see how fun and exciting it can be to see their fruits and vegetables thrive. Teaching nutrition is built into the curriculum."

Margaret Howard, senior director of community health for the American Heart Association, believes the teaching gardens have a large impact. 

"The project provides hands-on learning opportunities at our schools," she said. "It's not just for the children, but also for their teachers and parents. Children go home and say, 'Why don't we grow lettuce here too?'"

In the process of learning to plant seeds and nurture growing plants, Howard said children start to understand the value of healthy eating.

She added that at North Belt the garden will be used a part of the science curriculum at all grade levels. 

"Kids will be getting their hands dirty and really seeing how the plant life cycle works," she said. 

Howard said another planting day will be scheduled in the spring. 

"The experience kids have here follows them outside of the classroom and goes home with them," she said. "Our ultimate goal is to connect science and healthy eating in the garden. It helps us make an impact to see healthier lives and reduce heart attack and stroke. Starting with children is really important."

 

Children, teachers and parents gathered on Oct. 21 to load soil into wheelbarrows and plant vegetable seeds in the school's raised garden beds. 

Joining them were representatives of the American Heart Association and Aetna, the two sponsoring organizations that funded the project. 

Principal Macaire McDonough-Davies said that health is a top priority at North Belt Elementary School. 

Every morning, the entire campus eats a healthy breakfast together and then all 730 students head to a group work-out session.