Four third-graders Thursday took a distinguished visitor on a tour of the school garden they helped plant at Radio Park Elementary School.
They showed the Pennsylvania secretary of Agriculture more than lovingly grown produce.
He saw a pantry for the cafeteria.
Lunch — homemade pizza with homemade sauce, grilled cheese, apples and chef salad — was made by students from the State College Area High School culinary arts program using some ingredients from the garden as well as those from local farms and gardens.
For National Farm to School Day, Secretary George Greig honored Radio Park for its use of locally grown produce in daily school meals.
“We like to recognize those schools that go above and beyond to outreach with local farms and educate students about where their food comes from,” Greig said.
About 10 percent of the produce that went into Thursday’s lunch came from the Radio Park School garden, said Megan Schaper, the district’s food service director.
Mexican sour gherkins are regularly served with lunch at Radio Park.
It’s a cucumber-like, vine-grown fruit that looks like a mini watermelon, and students have requested that it be part of school lunches.
Thanks to Chip and Jeanne Clark, gherkins and other fruits and vegetables are readily available in the Radio Park garden.
The State College couple began revamping the school’s garden about five years ago, helping to make it a place where students can learn and food can be grown.
“See these nasturtiums? You can eat them, but they’re a little spicy,” 8-year-old Prithvi Narayanan said.
He was part of Kimber Hershberger’s class, which helped plant tomatoes and pumpkins in the spring.
Fellow classmates Marissa Fix, 8, Sydney O’Donnell, 8, and Maggie Van Kirk, 9, said their favorite garden goodies to eat were cucumbers and tomatoes.
Radio Park was selected for recognition among four schools in the commonwealth after a lengthy screening process by members of PA Preferred, a program that promotes the use of locally grown products and honors organizations that make an effort to use those foods.
The State College Area School District sources some of its food from Pennsylvania farms and businesses including, Gemelli Bakers in State College, Way Fruit Farm, of Port Matilda, and Jade Family Farm, of Port Royal. Other foods come from Lancaster-based Kegel’s Produce, Schaper said.
The district also serves produce from student-maintained gardens at each of its schools, including cherry tomatoes, radishes and gherkins that are used in vegetable salads.
The Radio Park garden was started more than 10 years ago as a way to get students proactive in outdoor education.
But about five years ago, when the Clark family moved to State College, their daughters attended Radio Park, and the couple wanted to do more to improve the garden.
Chip Clark said he pitched the idea to ramp up the garden to the Parent Teacher Organization, which gave him the OK to go ahead.
With help from a Lowe’s Toolbox for Education grant, he was able to put $2,500 worth of garden upgrades into it.
“It wasn’t up to par,” Chip Clark said. “It had some low-hanging chicken wire and beds that were at ground level and hard to maintain.”
He helped build a 6-foot fence around the garden, raised the beds and provided a stone walkway.
The Clarks’ daughters, Amanda, 15, and Gabi, 13, are now in middle and high school, but their parents still keep up the garden from early spring until late fall.
During the summer, other parent volunteers oversee garden maintenance, Chip Clark said.
Jeanne Clark said they grew up with green thumbs and, in the early 1990s, attended a master gardening class in Virginia.
Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said the Clarks, in partnership with Tony Sapia and Jim Eisenstein, of the Boalsburg farmers market, were instrumental in helping establish a garden at Gray’s Woods Elementary School that was built earlier this year and one at Mount Nittany Middle School that’s in the planting stages of planning.