Award winning SNAP-Ed garden program helps Island County schoolchildren grow in health, stewardship

Fifth grader Dani McConnell smiles as she picks a leaf from a bushy plant in the garden at Oak Harbor’s Crescent Harbor elementary school.

“Eat it,” she says. “You’ll love it.”

Two boys rustling through a nearby row of strawberries agree.

“Sour leaf is everybody’s favorite,” explains Ashley Bindschatel. Her sons, Isaiah and Ezra, are students at Crescent Harbor.

In another corner of the garden, a group of students inspects the rows of ripening corn.

A woman and child walk in a garden with greenhouse in the background.
Parent volunteer Rashida Mack and daughter Rashelle inspect the kale crop.

Children at school on a summer afternoon may seem like an unexpected scene, but it has become the norm at two elementary schools in Oak Harbor, Wash., where gardening programs have brought students out to learn more about where food comes from and how it’s grown. The gardens—a joint effort between Oak Harbor Public Schools and Washington State University Extension’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, otherwise known as SNAP-Ed—help students learn about health, sustainability, and stewardship and have become an integral part of the schools’ curriculum.

And now the program is gaining national attention.

This spring, Crescent Harbor and Olympic View elementary schools both won Washington Green Schools Green Medalist awards, and Oak Harbor Public Schools was named a 2019 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School District Sustainability Award recipient.

“The success of these gardens has so much to do with community support,” says Tricia Heimer, master gardener and WSU Island County Extension SNAP-Ed’s assistant garden coordinator. “So many groups came together to make it happen.”

Heimer points to the green house where students are eagerly harvesting ground cherries.

“This whole plot used to be a grass field,” she explains. “Three years ago, WSU Island County Extension and Island County Public Health applied for the SNAP-Ed grant that let us begin converting it into garden space, but the Soroptomist Club provided funding for the greenhouse, the Master Gardeners dug the beds, and Island Thrift paid for the tool shed.”

Greenhouse, garden, SNAP-Ed, Island County, Crescent View Elementary
Potatoes grow in raised beds outside the greenhouse at Crescent Harbor Elementary School.

Critical support also came from the Oak Harbor Education Foundation, and construction help was provided by nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

The gardens have become so popular that five Oak Harbor schools have now implemented some level of gardening, and the district has approved funding for a dedicated, district-wide garden coordinator. In September, Heimer will accompany the Oak Harbor Public Schools delegation to the U.S. Department of Education’s national award ceremony in Washington D.C.

“It’s incredible,” Heimer says. “We get kids out here who have never liked vegetables, and they come to the garden and try things, and they love them. They’re eating more and they’re connecting with the world around them. The value of that is simply unquantifiable.”

Learn more about how SNAP-Ed programs promote access and availability of healthy foods and physical activity in Washington communities here: