By Kathy Reed, Whidbey Weekly
To put Anza Muenchow in a garden is like putting a kid in a candy store.
That may not be the best analogy, considering Meunchow’s mission is to get kids excited about growing, harvesting and, most of all, eating their vegetables.
“I love gardening and I love getting kids excited about growing their own food,” she said last week as she stood among the rows of peas
in the garden at Crescent Harbor Elementary School in Oak Harbor, sampling them as she went along.
Muenchow helps with two school gardens
in the Oak Harbor School District. Both have been made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Supple- mental Nutrition Assistance Program Education initiative, and is a collaborative effort between Washington State University Extension, Island County Public Health and the school district. Meunchow is the WSU SNAP Ed coordinator for Island County.
The SNAP Ed grant allows gardens to be planted at schools where 50 percent or more of the stu- dents take part in the free or reduced-cost lunch program. In the Oak Harbor School District,
that means Olympic View and Crescent Harbor Elementary schools qualify.
Meunchow, who was formerly the WSU Master Gardener coordinator for Island County, couldn’t resist the opportunity to try her hand at this new challenge, which, as she describes it, is still a work in progress.
The program launched in January so the gar- dens are still taking shape. A third of an acre has been fenced off at Crescent Harbor Elementary. Second and third grade students get 30 minutes each week to spend outside, and have been involved in a lot of the work that’s been done so far, such as helping to put together the raised beds, spread wood chips along the walkways, plant seeds, tend the plants and harvest them.
“There are still areas that need a lot of work,” Meunchow said as she surveyed the garden.
The metal poles are in place that will house the
hoop house, or greenhouse. That addition will enable them to start plants during the winter months and it will also give students and staff dry place to gather on rainy days.
There is still no water at either of the gardens, but the process is underway and should be completed within a month or two.
This summer, Meunchow hopes to encourage kids and families to come to the garden when they participate in summer programs at the library. Because the garden is so new, the pro- gram isn’t as developed as she would like, but Meunchow has definite plans for the future.
“We’re hoping to develop more food-based reading programs with the library in the future,” she said. “We’d like the kids to be able to shop for and pick vegetables, maybe even set up some kind of farmers market model for the kids and their families.”
According to Kate Valenzuela, Crescent Harbor Elementary School’s principal, the program, even though it’s just getting underway, has drawn a positive response from students and parents.
“The parents have been incredibly supportive of this initiative and many have shared their stories of starting gardens in their own homes because their children have come home so excited about growing their own food,” said Valenzuela. “The students have also shown an adventurous spirit to try new foods (such as radish tops and pea vines) and they are eager to talk about the nutri- tional value of the food they are growing. From the parents’ point of view, this has been very positive for their child and their family.”
“It’s about increasing the repertoire of the vegetables they’ll eat,” Meunchow said. “Taste is a part of that. Sometimes what you buy at the store doesn’t taste as fresh as it does right out of the garden. But if they try it here and know what it can taste like, they may be more willing to eat it the next time their mom or dad buys it at the store.”
Meunchow must follow a curriculum put in place by the USDA. She is allowed to enhance the curriculum to make it more specific to this region. Currently there is a three-year plan in place, but because the program is dependent on federal funding through the USDA, things could change depending upon what happens with the Farm Bill.
“I’m optimistic we’ll be able to keep this going,” said Meunchow.
While teaching children about healthy eating habits and encouraging them to try to eat more fruits and vegetables at home is at the center
of the SNAP Ed program, there are lots of other lessons to be learned, too.
“At this age, they just suck up information,” Meunchow said. “A lot of them like the science of it, too. For instance, if we dig up an interest- ing bug it gives us the opportunity to discuss whether it’s a predator or a pest and what their role is. Or we’ll learn the different part of the plant; it’s fun to explore which part of the plants taste the best.”
“The benefits of the SNAP Ed program in con- junction with WSU Extension goes beyond nutri- tion,” Valenzuela said. “Having coordinator Anza Muenchow teaching in our classrooms once a week allows our students the opportunity to receive a foundation in the growing process. But what gets the students excited is being in the garden and getting their hands dirty. They’re getting an experience that you can’t get from a textbook.”
Already other schools in the district are inter- ested in establishing similar garden programs.
“The school gardens at Olympic View and Crescent Harbor are already proving to be very successful endeavors,” said Conor Laffey, com- munication officer for the Oak Harbor School District, explaining that the SNAP Ed program specifically could not be used at other schools because they do not meet the free and reduced lunch threshold the program requires.
“However, other schools have expressed inter- est in starting or sustaining gardens and have begun to take steps in that direction,” Laffey continued. “We are excited to see garden proj- ects in all of our schools.”
Although students are now on summer break, Meunchow is already thinking ahead to the
fall curriculum. There will be a vegetable of the month program greeting kids upon their return, so crops will need to be planted at the right time to ensure they’re ready. Fall-bearing raspberry plants are in the ground and some grapevines have been planted along one part of the fence. Meunchow toys with the idea of planting an apple tree as she surveys the space.
“I love gardens,” she said as she looks around. “Every year they’re new. Every year is a fresh start.”
Meunchow has a few fellow master gardeners who volunteer their time to help at the gardens, but would welcome more. She can be contacted through the Island County WSU Extension office. Anyone interested in helping supplement the SNAP Ed school garden program financially may contact the school district.