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Sauvie Island camps expose kids to farm life, food origins

In its 11th year, the Sauvie Island Center has helped thousands of students take the farm home

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Kate Nootenboom, an intern at the Sauvie Island Center, talks to a group of campers about the various parts of a plant's structure. Learning about the physical aspects of a plant is just one area of education students learn about during the five-day camp. Thousands of students converge on a 16-acre organic farm on Sauvie Island each summer to learn about growing vegetables and to see up-close where food comes from.

At the Sauive Island Center housed at Howell Territorial Park on the island, program coordinators and education volunteers hold week-long summer camps for students to learn all about life on a farm. Integral to the camp is lessons about the seed-to-harvest process of growing vegetables, and how soil, wildlife and the environment affect various crops.

When the Sauive Island Center camps first began in May 2000, the owner and founder of Sauvie Island Organics, Shari Raider, wanted children to have a deeper appreciation and understanding of farming and its connection to daily life, explained Joanne Lazo, the center’s marketing manager.

Wrapping up its 11th year, the program now serves as many as 1,800 students, with more than 2,300 students served in 2015 through the center’s other educational programs.

Now, the program partners with Sauvie Island Organics and uses a portion of its farmland, just west of Howell Territorial Park, to cultivate a “Grow Lunch Garden” used by students and staff. In the garden are rows of red and green leaf lettuce, rainbow chard, fennel, corn, cauliflower and nasturtium, all ingredients that are picked fresh before each snack or meal.

Students have the opportunity to walk through the fields and help pick veggies to create their own fresh snacks during their days at camp. When students have the opportunity to see how and where food actually grows, they begin to appreciate it more, Lazo said. Many children say, at the end of camp, they are often more excited about eating fresh vegetables than they were at the beginning of the week.

“It’s really about seeing where the food comes from, understanding what grows well in the Northwest, and then being able to taste it fresh from the farm and see different ways you can eat it,” Lazo said.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Sarah Philips, the Sauvie Island Center Education Program Manager, teaches a group of campers a song about plant parts. Phillips played her guitair while leading the children through the tune.Each week-long summer camp covers five different educational topics, including the benefits of composting, plant parts, the role of wildlife in the food web, pollinators and the seed-to harvest food growth process.

Students also spend time each day writing in their camp journals, jotting down notes about recipes they learn, foods they ate and sampled on the farm, as well as personal reflections about what they learned each day. Lazo said making education interactive, hands-on and fun for children reinforces their learning.

“Kids spends a lot of time using the journals to take the farm back to their home,” Lazo said.

Students in the program, such as Aviance Takau and Lana Warren-Justice, both fifth-graders at Cesar Chavez Community Center, said they enjoyed getting to walk around the farm and try new foods. Warren-Justice said she was surprised to learn just how many different fruits, vegetables and edible flowers existed that she didn’t know about before.

Kate Nootenboom is one of two interns who are working with the Sauvie Island Center for the first time this summer. Nootenboom, who has some experience working on organic farms and hopes to study environmental science in college, said she has also learned about how to work with children in an educational setting. Getting to tell students about where food comes from to “make that connection that maybe they haven’t had before is very rewarding,” she said.

Lazo said the takeaway from the program is twofold: Students learn to eat healthy and develop a deeper understanding and knowledge about knowing where food comes from.

“Obviously we want kids to eat healthy ... kids are eating more and more junk food and they’re less connected, and so we really want to give kids the opportunity to understand what it means to eat healthy and how it can taste really great,” Lazo said. “And the other thing is, we really believe, when kids understand where their food comes from, then the whole community benefits.”

The Sauvie Island Center offers year-round educational opportunities for students, teachers and families, including events like Family Farm Days and field trips.