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Lessons learned from school gardens

On Oct. 1, The Oregonian ran a front page article about hunger in our state. Most alarming is the number of affected children: 'Half of school-age kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.'

Oregon schools are becoming more than places of education, they are now the frontlines in the fight against hunger. By adhering to federal nutrition guidelines, the meals provided at school may be the most balanced a child will eat that day. Compared against the variability and shelf stable contents of food pantry boxes, schools have the edge in providing daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables to their hungry students. And, in turn, a head start in establishing healthy eating behaviors or food preferences.

Even as we hunger, Oregon is also fighting the obesity epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control's initiatives for combating the problem includes programs like www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov that encourages healthier eating habits and www.choosemyplate.gov/ that shows the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new dietary guidelines. The food pyramid is now symbolically a dinner plate, with half taken up by fruits and vegetables. But the question isn't whether to eat fruits and vegetables, it's where to readily find them.

Last year, through the cooperation of parent volunteers, our Parent-Teacher Organization, Luscher Farm and the city of Lake Oswego, Hallinan Elementary School built its own 24-raised bed vegetable garden. The first crops were planted this spring, harvested in early September and served as homegrown snacks to kids in the school. The planting beds are visible within feet of several classrooms, open to students during recess and grow pesticide-free produce. Hallinan's farm-to-table commute is carbon-free, our Lilliputian locavores know ripe cherry tomatoes can be yellow, orange or red colored and Stone Soup can be either folktale or lunch option. Whether the need is to teach healthy eating to curb obesity or provide basic nutrition for hungry kids, school gardens provide both. They are our most cost-effective open-air classrooms.

Lost in the larger discussion about school budget cuts is how to provide meals for kids at risk of food insecurity when school is not in session. Furlough days, once an anomaly, are now routinely scheduled throughout school districts around the state. Added to professional in-service days and public holidays, the children in households receiving free or reduced-priced lunches (and increasingly, breakfasts) miss out when schools are closed. Consider how a family of four budgets for the additional 10, possibly 20, meals not eaten at school when two school-age children are at home during Veterans Day, furlough day(s) and Thanksgiving. Hunger hates summer break.

The Oregonian reported an eight percent year-to-year rise in August food stamp recipients, with one in five Oregonians currently enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. By August, the Hallinan Gardens were producing green beans, cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash. Like the 'Habitat for Humanity' model, school families investing sweat equity shared in the summer harvest and planted new crops to ripen in early fall. Next spring, expert advice by local master gardeners may increase our yields and winter crops may also become part of our planting cycle.

Lake Oswego celebrated its centennial at Luscher Farm. Faced with both hunger and obesity issues, let's go 'Back to the Future' by building gardens at our schools.

Carolyn J. Heymann is a resident of Lake Oswego.