A Schoolwide Culture of Health in Gloucester MA

A student colors in a carrot at his desk in Gloucester, MA

Veterans Memorial School Gloucester MAThis morning I walked to the school entrance at Veterans Elementary School in Gloucester, MA. I walked past the garden beds I had just topped off with fresh soil yesterday and got buzzed in by Claire, the school secretary. It’s nice to have her recognize me, and sometimes she lets me in before I can even ring the doorbell. She told me about how she started working at Veterans the very year I was born, and how she herself was born the year the school was built.

Class Rules and Norms PosterI walked down the hall past the school’s new composting posters to Ms. Clayton’s classroom, one of the first participants in the garden programs of my service site, Backyard Growers. Today the class, Ms. Clayton, and I set some rules and norms for how we should act when I come visit. This class is a group I will be working with regularly to make garden-based connections to the class curriculum. I go once a month to lead lessons on food systems and to get them excited about growing vegetables and trying new things. Today was a whirlwind. The students took a “vegetable preference survey,” that measures how familiar they are with certain vegetables and serves as a starting point to measure any improvement they make over the course of the year, signed the group norms, and they were on their way to gym class.

A white bucket with a MyPlate flyer pasted to the bottomI chatted with Ms. Clayton as we walked down the hall and was about to leave when I saw that the gym teacher was teaching a lesson on MyPlate, the USDA’s guidelines for recommended healthy eating. My supervisor and I had just designed new nutrition curriculum for the gym classes. We knew this teacher had expressed interest in the material, but didn’t know she had read through the lesson plans, made them her own, and already started teaching it! I poked my head in the gym and waved at her and was welcomed in to join Ms. Clayton’s class as the gym teacher explained how many items of each food group you need on your plate. Then, the students did a relay where each team had to race to get the right amount of items for each food group. The gym teacher had taken an idea we created in our nutrition curriculum and tweaked it a bit – making it a whole lot cooler. Kids were shouting “we need one more protein!” and dashing to get an orange bean bag like their lives depended on it. I helped some of them out and chatted with the janitor.

Amy holds up poster shaped like corn so kids can vote on whether they liked the corn chowderAs they were playing, The Open Door‚ a local food pantry and hunger relief organization—was setting up their mobile market in the gym. They provide a mobile market for staff and parents at Veterans every Friday after school. There I sat, while the students ran around collecting healthy foods for their “plates”, fresh off a discussion of how they’re going to be my “little agriculturists” who try new things. I looked over and saw on my right the bulletin board Backyard Growers had created focused on the question “Where does your food come from?” On my left, the food pantry was setting up their awesome mobile market . All of this was happening in the cafeteria that we hold our taste-tests in and serve vegetables the students grow in the school garden for lunch. This moment gave me a glimpse into the community food system and its interconnectedness. This was a school embodying a culture of health.

Rachel from the food pantry swooped in with kale from Alprilla Farm right down the road. She whipped up some green smoothies for the kids hanging around in the gym while their parents picked them up and went through the mobile market. Some students said “I’ve had this before!” recognizing the smoothie from when the previous FoodCorps service member did a Green Monster smoothie tasting event last year with them, and they happily slurped them down. It was amazing to get to discuss vegetable preferences in the classroom with Jojo, help her complete the right number of fruits for her MyPlate, encourage her to try a green smoothie, and then wave goodbye to her as I worked in the garden bed and she heads home with her parent.

This is what it’s about: the intersection of gym, classroom, cafeteria, and the garden. As I weeded in the garden I saw students walking home up the sidewalk with “I tried it” stickers on their foreheads. It was a surreal and gratifying moment. At Backyard Growers we talk about approaching school food environments from all angles and here it was, happening all around me on a Friday afternoon.