Turning little thumbs green

Learning Gardens foster healthy bond between food, kids

Kimbal Musk, left, and Gov. John Hickenlooper at a Learning Garden in Denver.
Photo by Laurie Smith

Tucked neatly in a corner by the basketball court is Casey Middle School’s Learning Garden. The garden is brought to life by towering sunflowers, beds of lettuce and an array of herbs like mint, oregano and thyme.

Casey Middle School is one of the 22 schools in the nation that has paired up with The Kitchen in Boulder and its nonprofit effort to bring the concept of the Learning Gardens to their school grounds.

The Learning Garden is the brainchild of entrepreneur and restaurateur Kimbal Musk, who is also the co-founder of the restaurant. It is an easy and scalable school garden system, fun enough for kids to play in, but also useful as a teaching tool.

The inspiration for the nonprofit idea came from one of The Kitchen’s employees, Bryce Brown, who started the Growe Foundation that puts gardens in Boulder schools. The other source for the idea of the Learning Gardens, Musk says, was his son.

“The other place it came from was my son’s preschool had a garden in the playground itself,” he says. “So what I wanted to do was create something that took the great work that the Growe Foundation is doing and turn it into a garden that was really part of the playground.”

What resulted as a product of this observation is an innovative design for gardens. According to Musk, the garden comes with multiple advantages compared to older, conventional school gardens.

“Most gardens are rectangular in shape, they usually have a fence around them, often times they’ll be separate from the school yard,” he says. “The major difference between our gardens [and those] is ours is designed for kids to spontaneously want to play in it.”

One of the goals is to help kids improve their relationship with food and lower the rate of childhood obesity. Statistics show that in Colorado, about 14 percent of children between 2 and 5 years old are overweight, and 9 percent are obese. Musk says that the gardens can help children eat better.

“I have them spend time in there … we can get them to double their intake of fruits and vegetables,” he says.

Often times, the gardens are used to teach kids about nutrition or life cycles in science.

“It’s very easy for teachers to teach in them, and we want to create something where teachers can spontaneously teach something,” he says. “So if it’s just a beautiful day outside, teachers can just go outside to the garden and read a book.”

The cost of a garden ranges from $3,000 to $50,000, depending on the type of school and how much management needs to be included to get the garden running and maintained.

“I think we have faced a lot of challenges, but to be honest, everyone loves the idea and everyone loves for our kids to have a better connection to food,” Musk says. “We’ve had a lot of challenges, but we’ve had a lot of support, it’s been incredible.”

Trish Koval, a parent volunteer who supports the Learning Garden at Casey, says that the kids enjoy having the garden at school.

“I think they like sitting outside during lunch time and learning about it through a hands-on kind of way,” Koval says. “They get to learn about science through the garden, as opposed to just from the textbook.”

Koval also says the school has been getting a lot of support in maintaining the garden from parents and volunteers.

“We’ve had parents help build [the garden that] used to be out there,” she says. “Chase, the bank, came this past summer, and 15 volunteers, along with parents, helped us with the garden.”

JP Morgan Chase is the funding partner in the Learning Gardens project. Together with The Kitchen and leaders from participating cities, Chase announced in September that it plans to install at least 180 more Learning Gardens.

“With The Kitchen community, we get help from volunteers to maintain the garden and help with the weeding,” Koval says. “The district has also been helpful. They’ve helped us with water pressure and to get the water just right for the garden.”

Koval says that she wants to include the vegetables in the children’s school meals.

“There’s some lettuce that we’ve grown and we’re hoping that they’ll incorporate that into the school’s salad bar,” she says.

Judy Converse is a registered dietitian in Boulder who advocates eating organic produce, like that grown in the Learning Gardens, and says that organic foods have different nutrient profiles, but more importantly are devoid of harmful substances.

“I think the really big difference is what they’re not eating,” she says. “They’re not eating all the pesticides, they’re not eating genetically modified food, which is a big controversy, and I think that’s where they’re really going to benefit over time.”

According to Converse, kids need more nutrients per pound than adults because they’re growing and their brains are developing. Converse, who conducts nutrition classes at her practice, also says that the Learning Gardens are a good resource for kids to improve their relationship with food.

“I know in my classes, when kids are more involved with food being made or grown, they tend to eat better, so hopefully this will hold true, if these gardens can be supported and maintained and participation can be sustained,” she says.

Converse urges parents to plant or buy organic when possible because the toxic compounds from inorganic processes affect a child’s growth.

“Any place where you can exert some control and not expose your kids to toxins, I think is worth it, and growing or using organic food when you can afford it,” she says.

Converse ultimately believes that good, whole and nutritious foods are the building blocks of life.

“Nutrition, food, is everything. … You are what you eat, but truly, that’s all your child has to build the brain from, is whatever you’re feeding them.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com