Seed-to-table learning

Gilmore City-Bradgate embraces the experience

-Photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
Kelsey Wigans, a registered dietitian, shows some of the produce being grown for the Gilmore City-Bradgate’s seed-to-table learning project. Lessons include identifying plants and what parts of the plants are edible.

GILMORE CITY — Step into the lunch room of the 1940s-vintage elementary school in Gilmore City around noon, and be prepared for a steady patter of tennis shoes, the low roar of children’s voices echoing from the doorway to the stage, and enthusiastic comments like, “Yeah, carrots” when the students see the salad bar.

“We teach our students to be the best they can be, and a big part of that is being healthy and eating right,” said Kelsey Wigans, a registered dietitian who has served as the first seed-to-table garden manager at the Gilmore City-Bradgate Elementary School since the fall of 2016.

To the best of her knowledge, Wigans is the only seed-to-table garden manager working full-time in a public school in Iowa. This unique role allows her to serve the 135 children at the Gilmore City school, including pre-schoolers and kindergarten through sixth-grade students. Various learning opportunities abound on about an acre and a half of land, from the greenhouse near the bus barn to container gardens and an orchard just north of the school. The produce raised on-site becomes part of school lunches, allowing students to sample a wider array of healthy foods and unique flavors.

Not all of it is a hit. One girl stated, “I didn’t like that! It’s different from last time,” as she pointed at the lettuce mixed with peppery arugula on the salad bar. While one influential student can sway other students’ opinions on what not to eat, this also works in reverse. If one student says something is good, other kids want to try it, too.

“When we started this a few years ago, only about 10 percent of students ate vegetables from the salad bar,” said Wigans, who adds a drizzle of ranch dressing to each child’s lunch tray if he or she wants a little extra flavor on their vegetables. “Now nearly half of the kids eat the veggies.”

Learning comes alive

While the inspiration for this seed-to-table program came from California, it fits well with Gilmore City-Bradgate’s mission of “A Great Start Close to Home.”

“A few years ago we visited MUSE, a private school in Calabassas, California, that had a seed-to-table manager,” said Jeff Herzberg, Gilmore-City Bradgate’s superintendent. “I was blown away by the things their students were doing as a result of having someone to focus on this work. Our local school board supported my recommendation to create this position here, and the rest is history.”

Like MUSE, the Gilmore City-Bradgate Elementary School believes that kids are thinkers, dreamers, doers, innovators and creators who are naturally “switched-on” when they’re learning about something they love. Interconnections are also critical. Gilmore City-Bradgate students benefit from the personal attention and nurturing relationships that are cultivated by being part of a small school, plus their classes and “passion projects” incorporate science, technology, engineering, mathematics and more.

Passion projects encourage students to dive into subjects that interest them and connect these projects to community service. Some students, for example, have chosen to learn more about deer hunting and how to process venison to supply protein-rich snacks to their fellow classmates. Others want to learn about sewing, while some prefer to dig deeper into gardening.

“When you connect education to things that students are interested in, they learn so much better,” said Wigans, who grew up gardening with her mother and expanding her cooking skills through 4-H.

Young gardeners in Gilmore City help choose what vegetables to grow at school, from lettuce to beans to tomatoes. They can also join the Little Chefs Club. Participants meet with Wigans and Tiffany Thumma, Gilmore City-Bradgate’s school food director, for two hours every Monday after school to learn how to cook.

All these opportunities boost students’ ag literacy–a critical component for a well-rounded education, emphasize school leaders.

“Even though Iowa has some of the most fertile farm ground in the world, so many people are disconnected from agriculture and food production,” said Wigans, a 2010 North Tama High School graduate who grew up on a corn, soybean and cattle farm in central Iowa.

When she was earning her dietetics degree from Iowa State University, Wigans was shocked to discover how many of her friends and fellow students had little or no practical experience with food production or food preparation.

“It was eye opening and definitely made me feel privileged to have grown up on a farm,” said Wigans, who earned her master’s degree in community nutrition from Southern Illinois University in 2016. “I love helping people connect the dots between farming, food and nutrition.”

Planting the seeds of success

In Wigan’s classroom, lessons start at the most basic level, such as identifying what plants need to grow (sun, soil, water and air) and exploring what parts of the plants in the school’s gardens are edible.

Hands-on educational opportunities surround the students all year long, from the learning kitchen inside the school (created in a former high school locker room) to the acre and a half of land filled with apple, cherry and pear tree, aronia bushes, raspberries, grapevines and whimsical container gardens repurposed from decommissioned carnival ride seats where students grow kale and other crops. A chicken coop also houses a small flock of egg-laying hens at the school.

“It’s a fun, creative atmosphere,” Herzberg said. “The kids are growing healthy food and learning to eat things they’ve never tried before. They’re also having fun all year long, whether they’re in our outdoor classroom, the garden, the greenhouse or the kitchen.”

Harvesting deeper-level thinking

Garden-related lessons cover a wide range of topics, including a monarch butterfly unit. While the students already have a butterfly garden, Wigans is creating a monarch rearing room in a former shower room located just off the learning kitchen classroom.

The learning kitchen itself opens up a whole new world of cultures and flavors. During one Friday afternoon lesson in early February, kindergarten students learned about the Chinese New Year and watched a YouTube video showing how rice is grown before trying their hand at making puffed rice and quinoa at the stove. The lesson incorporated spelling (how do you spell rice?) and math, as students measured ingredients and learned about fractions in recipes.

The importance of hands-on learning can’t be overestimated, Wigans said.

“The buy-in from students is tremendous when they get to help. If we talk about roasted pumpkin seeds and just hand them some for a snack, for example, they don’t get nearly as excited or learn as much as when they help roast the seeds themselves,” she said.

Watching the seed-to-table program evolve is inspiring, Herzberg added.

“We’re excited to see our kids get a great education while learning how to make healthy eating delicious. We’ve received excellent feedback from parents and the community, thanks to all the learning opportunities that Kelsey and the seed-to-table program offer our students,” he said.