The Vermont Farmers Food Center is a nonprofit in Rutland that’s been working to harness the economic potential of local agriculture.
The group created Rutland’s indoor farmer’s market and has put teens to work on area farms.
Now they’re focused on using farming as a teaching tool. They hope a new greenhouse and a chance to grow plants will help school kids learn about nutrition, science, and themselves.
Melinda Hardt is the nonprofit’s education coordinator. She stood inside the group’s new, 4,300 square foot greenhouse – her classroom. “We have this space over here," she said, pointing to several tables and chairs, "where the kids can write in their journal and where we have circle time at the beginning and end of each workshop. And then the beds are set up so that the kids can really get low to the ground, the kids can really get into the dirt and the kids can really garden at their level.”
Behind her were row after row of raised beds, 13 in all, waiting for plants.
On a recent Monday afternoon, 16 Rutland City fourth graders, armed with garden gloves and trowels, were busy breaking up dirt in those beds, spreading top soil and joking about cow manure and whether there might be any horse poop in the dirt.
This program runs seven weeks. It started back in March when the kids were each given a tiny tomato seed to plant and name. They'll take the plants home when the course is over.
The group met for an hour, three Mondays in a row. Then they took three weeks off.
This was session four. Their tomato plants were sprouting - progress that the kids detailed in their greenhouse journals.
They gathered around tables to work together on the week’s experiment, which had to do with assessing how varying amounts of sunlight and water had affected spinach seeds they planted back in March.
Teacher Nicole Joyce said around age 9 or 10, kids start to realize it’s not just about them anymore, that they’re part of a community. So developmentally, she said this type of program is ideal for her students. "I also think it also empowers them, so that at this age, they can say, ‘I can plant a garden and it will grow, all by myself.’”
She thinks it’s also very important for kids to understand where their food comes from.
Greg Cox, executive director of the Vermont Farmers Food Center and a farmer, agreed. "It's part of our economy and it’s nutrition. And we said, 'You know what?' We can play a vital role in educating our kids and bring it to them in a really meaningful way,” he said.
He walked over to one of the raised beds where kids were preparing the dirt for strawberry plants. “They get to grow them, to understand that we’re similar. We all breathe, we all get hot, we drink, we grow.” Added Cox, laughing, “It’s Vermont’s version of swimming with the dolphins! Playing in the dirt, watching plants grow and being part of that cycle.”
He and Joyce said this type of program is also good for kids who’ve experienced trauma, something that’s becoming a bigger issue in schools.
“When you are responsible for another living thing you realize you are not alone," said Cox. "Empathy is something you really need to develop in people. When you come in and see a plant that’s wilted because it doesn’t have water and you water it and you see it come back and stand up straight, that’s empowering. People need that."
There are currently 120 Rutland city fourth graders taking part in the program. Cox says other nearby schools have expressed interest.
He says programs for home schoolers, preschoolers and day care centers are also in the works.