Like many school districts across the Twin Cities, Columbia Heights has poured resources into STEAM education — emphasizing science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
But leaders at the small urban district, sensing a growing appetite for a truly hands-on, down-in-the-dirt learning experience, decided to take STEM learning all the way back to its roots.
With the help of state and county funds, they planted an “edible schoolyard” overseen by a full-time science and garden specialist to help connect children’s experience in the garden to math, science and nutrition.
Bonnie Lohman, hired this spring, is showing a new generation of city kids how to garden and cook with their harvest. Younger children and teens follow the process from planning and planting all the way through the harvest and healthy meal preparation.
The students are making garden gourmet dishes including basil-arugula-spinach pesto, sweet strawberry soup and radish tea sandwiches paired with a homemade Juneberry mint tea — and they are actually eating it.
“Superintendent Kathy Kelly thought it was really important that we provide an edible schoolyard for our students,” said Kristen Stuenkel, director of community education. “This isn’t just because it’s fun or trendy. It’s really making a difference in our students’ health and well-being.”
Adding a full-time garden specialist wasn’t a decision made lightly, Stuenkel said. District leaders determined that the full-time position could nurture many of the trends in education — science, hands-on learning, healthy eating and nutrition.
Lohman, who has worked as a science teacher and is also a master gardener, helps teachers makes those curriculum connections.
“Teachers really need a partner with this garden to fully make use of the resource,” Stuenkel said. “This is a growing movement across the country. There is a lot happening with edible education in Minnesota.”
Lohman joined the staff in May, just in time for spring planting. The high school students helped plan out and design the garden
They garden, made of several raised beds and fruit trees, is now blooming with flowers and a varieties of vegetables, fruit and herbs. Kindergartners all the way to high school seniors incorporate the garden into coursework. It’s used during the school year, for summer school and for community education courses.
Children’s experience with gardening really runs the gamut, Lohman said.
“I had this one boy come out and say, ‘I don’t do this. I don’t go outside,’ ” Lohman said.
By the end of his first experience in the garden, he was enthusiastically weeding.
“It’s amazing the little shifts I see in such a short time,” Lohman said.
Lohman said one of the first lessons many younger students learn is that apples and bananas aren’t the only kinds of fruits. Working in the garden exposes most kids to new types of food. When students are part of the growing process, they’re more likely to taste something new because they’ve invested time and labor into it.
“Kids aren’t given enough credit for what they’ll eat or like,” Lohman said.
Nutrition is an important lesson for the school district of 3,000 students where nearly 80 percent are on free or reduced-price lunch programs.
One of the big sensations of the past school year was homemade pesto prepared with some additional leafy greens including. spinach and arugula.
Lohman said she’s always loved to cook and has been thrilled to incorporate that into her new job.
“To me, it’s really important to show kids fresh fruits and vegetables and herbs can make really interesting and tasty food,” Lohman said.
One morning last week, Lohman and a small group of summer school students harvested ingredients and cooked a toasty sesame noodle salad with green vegetables.
Nine-year-old Renee Dehn harvested beans from the garden to go into the salad.
“I’m good at beans,” explained Dehn. “It’s really kind of neat. We have a little garden where we can harvest and make things.”
The students and Lohman used a small kitchen in the school to prepare the noodle salad. They shared stories about their own cooking experiences including making cookies with mom or helping scramble eggs.
Lohman is patient teaching the children safe chopping techniques and how to use the garlic press.
“I love the chaos of cooking with kids,” Lohman said.
Soon, the salad was complete. The student chefs sampled their creation, a noodle salad full of greens, carrots and radishes. They emptied their bowls.