Good Life

Grant helps SCASD students grow food and gardening knowledge

Kindergardener Marshall Shaner helps to shovel dirt to move to the raised beds outside of Ferguson Township Elementary School on Wednesday.
Kindergardener Marshall Shaner helps to shovel dirt to move to the raised beds outside of Ferguson Township Elementary School on Wednesday.

Ah, summer — that time of the year when a young person’s mind turns to thoughts of gardening.

At least that’s the general idea.

Last July, the State College Area School District received a $26, 335 demonstration site grant from the Seed Change program, which supports efforts to bring local food into schools and enhance food education.

“We just have a lot of people in this district that really are very passionate about farm-to-school activities,” said Megan Schaper, food service director for SCASD.

We’ll get into more detail on that later, but in short: What’s on your plate is just as important as how it got there.

So far, the Seed Grant has been used to fertilize new gardening-related programs at schools across the district and to ensure that there’s plenty of water left in the can for veteran plots in need of a little sprucing.

“We’ve got some schools where we have really fabulous gardens and schools that are just starting,” Schaper said.

Context counts

Paul Heasley is an agricultural science teacher at State High, so if you really want to know more about the ground-level effect of the Seed Grant, he’s the guy to ask.

He is, after all, the guy in the greenhouse with the students — and their relatively new Dutch Bucket Hydroponic System.

For those keeping track at home, a Dutch Bucket Hydroponic System looks almost exactly like what it sounds like (if you’re picturing an interconnected network of buckets that allows for the more efficient production of food and the recycling of water — good ears!).

“The Dutch Bucket system that was purchased with the Seed Grant funds provided additional growing system principles that students did not experience before,” Heasley said.

In addition to possibly popping up on an exam or two somewhere down the pike, the broad base of agricultural knowledge that the students are accumulating could have big implications for the future.

“In order to meet the food needs of 9.3 billion people in 2050, we need to continue to improve educational efforts at all levels of our educational system,” Heasley said.

We just have a lot of people in this district that really are very passionate about farm to school activities.

Megan Schaper, food service director for SCASD

You have to start somewhere

Debi Shaner is the big reason that there was a big pile of dirt just down the sidewalk from the main entrance to Ferguson Township Elementary School on Thursday afternoon.

Shaner is a mother of four and president of the school’s PTO.

She had long been interested in getting a garden planted somewhere outside of the building, but it wasn’t until Shaner reached out to Schaper that she learned about the Seed Grant.

With the garden finally starting to take shape, Shaner is hopeful that students will be able to take part in every step of the process, from maintenance to harvest. If some of the food grown finds its way into the cafeteria, even better.

“I’m hoping it’s going to open their eyes to eating a little healthier,” Shaner said.

Look for help close to home

Marshall Shaner is not what you would call a picky eater.

“I ate a flower once,” Marshall said.

It was purple. He’s probably tasted better. Get over it.

Marshall is a kindergartner at Ferguson Township Elementary and was putting in a little overtime to help his mother and a motley crew of undergraduates from Penn State Student Farm to install a quad of 4-by-8 garden beds at the heart of the school’s property.

Now, there are some 6-year-olds who would be intimidated by the prospect of working side by side with a bunch of college girls. Not Marshall. He helps out in his family’s garden all the time — it’s totally not a big deal.

His mother said that all of her children — some infinitely more picky than Marshall — are more willing to try fruits or vegetables that they’ve had a hand in growing themselves.

“They’re definitely more interested in the harvesting and the eating,” Shaner said.

I’m hoping it’s going to open their eyes to eating a little healthier.

Debi Shaner

Or farm it out

Hayly Hoch wears a lot of hats, so it’s best to stack them slowly for fear of knocking the entire pile over.

Let’s start with volunteer gardener.

Hoch, along with three other members of Penn State’s Student Farm Club, was on hand at the elementary school to lend critical on-the-ground support.

In other words: free manual labor.

“A big goal of our club is to support sustainability,” Hoch said.

In this case, that meant taking a variety of green life sitting idly on a nearby shelf and putting it in the ground, where it would eventually become tomatoes, peppers and lettuce, among other things.

The beds themselves were still in the preliminary stages — holes in the ground in need of dirt, which Carolina Negron, a student in her fifth year at Penn State, was busy shoveling into a wheelbarrow.

She hoped that students discovered that this was more fun than it sounds.

“I would love to see them acquire a little bit more knowledge and more comfort with the idea of growing your own food,” Negron said.

You don’t have to look far for inspiration

Now, back to Hoch and her many hats.

This summer, she will be serving as SCASD’s garden coordinator, a short title with a long job description that includes establishing a broader base of volunteers, compiling a manual of “best practices” for incorporating the district’s school gardens into farm-to-school curriculum and increasing opportunities for student-grown produce to be used in cafeterias.

“Creating connections across those schools, that’s what I really want to do,” Hoch said.

Some of those connections have already started to blossom.

Over at State High, Heasley said that they are happy to provide resource materials and students to help with garden projects around the district.

“This year we focused more on growing vegetable transplants for the elementary gardens if needed,” Heasley said.

When Shaner was trying to determine the best supplies to purchase for the garden in progress at Ferguson Township, she turned to Chip Clark, who along with his wife Jeanne has been helping to grow and maintain the garden at Radio Park Elementary School for years.

Clark uses a series of carefully bent PVC piping to place coverings over his beds, protecting the plants on cold or windy nights. He passed that same tip along to Shaner.

“Knowing what’s worked for him made it much easier, knowing I was buying the right stuff,” Shaner said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready