WATERLOO, Iowa --- Bryan Foster knelt by the raised plant bed pointing out the tiny green weeds to a small group of Lowell Elementary School second-graders.
“What about this?” asked Lauren Madlock.
While Foster, a consumer horticulturist with the Black Hawk County Extension office, tried to monitor what the students were removing from one plant bed another second-grader was directing his classmates at one of the others.
“That’s not a weed,” said Juan Escobar. “But, this is.”
Escobar, who has helped his family plant yellow tomatoes at home, is also learning about gardening and nutrition at school thanks to a $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service People’s Garden School Pilot Program grant.
The grant was awarded to the “Healthy Gardens, Healthy Youth” partnership, which includes Washington State University, Iowa State University Extension Services, Cornell University and the University of Arkansas. Researchers from WSU Thursday toured the gardens at Lowell and in Dunkerton.
“This is the one and only grant like this in the U.S. I think we got it because it was a collaboration,” said Janet Toering with Iowa State University Extension. “We can’t do anything by ourselves anymore. This program is an example of what you can do when you partner with other organizations.”
This year, 54 schools in four states planted gardens as part of the youth nutrition and gardening research project. Teachers at Lowell said their students have shown a lot of interest in the project.
“They are all over it. They check out their earth boxes every day. I am constantly calling them back to the classroom,” said Kara McKeen, a second grade teacher.
Students like fourth-grader Anela Osmic said the best part has been sampling some of the produce they are planting. Students said they made salsa and lettuce wraps and tried radishes and green onions.
This summer, an AmeriCorps worker, will visit the garden every Wednesday with students participating in the summer YWCA program. Some of those kids will likely be the same ones who planted the beds this spring.
Though teachers have yet to decide if they will continue these efforts beyond the life of the two-and-a-half year grant McKeen said the possibility does exist if the right supporting partners can be found.
“The interest these kids have taken is great. They are interested in every lesson and that isn’t always something you can say,” she said.