Mark McDermott

Good growing

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A single garden at Pacific Elementary School has sprouted fruit and veggie patches throughout LA County and San Francisco Bay area schools, all tended by little green thumbs

A Growing Great elementary student harvests greens that will be sold at her school’s farmer’s market. Photo by Peggy Curry

by Andrea Ruse

In 2005, a group of elementary students from two Manhattan Beach schools decided that a recently contracted school district food supplier wasn’t meeting their nutritional needs. They put together a petition signed by their peers demanding that changes be made.

The petition created by the students at Grand View and Pacific Elementary schools claimed that the supplier — the kind that drops off airtight packages of heavily processed foods — did not put the nutritional needs of the students first. Unsatisfied with what they considered the poor quality of food, they asked that the supplier trade out heavily processed pizza, burritos and sandwiches in plastic baggies for whole, colorful foods.

“The kids looked at the foods being served and all of them had all the red flags we taught them,” said Peggy Curry, Director of Development for Growing Great, a Manhattan Beach-based nonprofit that provides hands-on gardening and nutritional education to the community. “The kids took what they learned and knew that ‘What you’re feeding us is not okay.’”

The organization had taught the kids to read nutrition labels and about the proper protein, fat and carbohydrate contents of food. Students demanded the supplier immediately begin providing their schools with high quality, low-processed foods or to kindly pack up and leave.

The food supplier did not return the following year.

“We like to think they played a role in making that happen,” said Marika Bergsund, founder and Board Chair of Growing Great. “The petition was a huge signal that we had inspired them to make changes in their lives.”

Over the past decade, Growing Great has educated 30,000 students in the garden and classroom on making healthy and educated food choices. The organization has developed nutritional programs to supplement state funded curriculums and has been featured on CNN.

Growing Great founders (left to right) Marika Bergsund, Lori Sherman, Peggy Curry and Executive Director Sarah Gelb enjoy last year’s Healthy Living Festival in Manhattan Beach. Photo courtesy of Growing Great

On Sunday, Growing Great will celebrate its 10th anniversary at the Healthy Living Festival in Manhattan Beach’s downtown Metlox Plaza. Last year, 4,000 people attended the event.

“The festival is an opportunity to give back to the community,” Bergsund said. “And it provides activities for families to do together – sampling new food, learning about food and enjoying it.”

The homegrown organization sprouted from a single garden at Pacific Elementary School. Over the last decade, it has bloomed into 21 fruit and veggie patches throughout L.A. County schools, tended to and harvested by the little green thumbs of thousands of kids.

The idea started in 1998 when the Manhattan Beach Unified School District received a grant to put in a garden at an elementary school. Then-Manhattan Beach resident and environmental attorney Bergsund – whose son attended Pacific — volunteered to head the project.

The following year, the district put in three more gardens and Bergsund suddenly found herself writing standards-based curriculums on gardening that could be modified for any grade level. In 1999, the district was one of five in California to receive a $50,000 grant from the state to create gardens for nutrition education. Growing Great finished putting in gardens and composting sites at each of the district’s five elementary schools and set out to tackle the rest of the county, starting programs in Torrance, L.A., Culver City and Wiseburn school districts.

Bergsund, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay area, recently started Growing Great programs in the Sausalito-Marin City School District. The state of Hawaii has also implemented Growing Great in all of its elementary schools, according to Curry, and recently provided the organization with a three-year grant.

In 2001, Curry, a Manhattan Beach parent and former special education teacher who taught food conscious classes, along with a handful of other parents, became concerned about the declining nutritional value of food served in schools. She and residents Lori Sherman and Chris Weller joined Bergsund to form the first Growing Great team.

Curry quickly learned that California standards required little more than that cafeteria food meet certain percentages of protein, fats and carbs.

“The word ‘quality‘ didn’t fit into it,” Curry said. “Pizza fits that description and chicken nuggets. Foods that don’t have a lot of benefit.”

Cover garden jpeg Growing Great founder Marika Bergsund teaches students the basics of planting and irrigating a vegetable garden. Photo by Peggy Curry

Growing Great became a legal non-profit in 2004. Its goal was to continue providing a wide variety of wholesome, colorful foods to school children, along with education students need to make healthy food choices.

“We’re so proud of what it’s become and what we’re able to offer,” Bergsund said.

While the organization has expanded and evolved in 10 years, the idea remains simple.

A network of trained parent volunteers and teachers go into classrooms with a  curriculum that has been reviewed by educators, doctors and other experts, according to Curry, and is aimed at making sense to kids. Docents teach students about to distinguish processed foods from those closest to their original source, for example, by pointing out the differences between an apple, apple sauce, apple juice and Apple Jacks.

In the garden program, kids take two interactive classes during the year on chemical-free farming, the importance of proper water usage and composting. During the school year, kids put what they’ve learned into action, planting, watering and maintaining on-site gardens and composting centers.

“Children plant in the garden from seed and it really comes alive,” Curry said. “They’re not eating out of a bag.”

At the end of the year, each school has a Spring Harvest Party where students prepare and eat some of the fruits of their labor. The rest goes to a school farmer’s market to raise money. Farm-to-School Harvest of the Month tastings offer students the chance to try fresh produce from local farms.

In 2004, Growing Great added a nutrition program, made up of five classes per year where kids learn about nutrition science in fun, interactive modules full of food samples.

“We teach lessons about beneficial versus harmful fats to kids,” Curry said. “We teach them about reading labels to see the quality of food. We go into how the quality makes a difference in our overall bodies.”

Cover class jpeg Growing Great Director of Development Peggy Curry teaches a nutrition course that supplements the organization’s garden program. Photo courtesy of Growing Great

The message is passed on at home through two-sided handouts that have kid and adult versions of the same lessons.

“If you don’t educate the parents who are buying and preparing the food, it doesn’t matter if a child wants an apple when there are only apple pop tarts in the house,” Bergsund said. “And then it’s harder to make the change.”

Bersund believes that the combination of garden and nutrition programs offer schools flexible health programs that they otherwise could not afford.

“This type of program, especially in the time of a budget crisis, is one that is not going to be produced by a school district on its own,” Bergsund said. “That’s where Growing Great comes in. It’s adaptable to any school district.”

The team hopes that much like a harvest that grows from carefully sown seeds, the broader community will be educated through children about the importance of choosing what they put into their bodies.

“After five lessons, these kids are retaining information, implementing it and becoming Growing Great ambassadors to their homes,” Curry said. “With these simple tools, we’re educating families.”

While Growing Great still has many school districts to conquer in L.A. County, the team already has its sights set far beyond the state.

“I want every school in the United States to have this program available,” Curry said.

Bergsund said a long list of cities – including Chicago, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia – is waiting for the organization to develop the resources to go national.

Last year, Growing Great started a Pre-Kindergarten Mommy and Me class. Later this year, Curry expects to co-publish with Therese Trebaol “It’s Summer: What’s in Season Now?,” the first of a four-part, children’s book series that teaches young children about the benefits of farmer’s markets and organically grown food.

Cover market jpeg Students at Grand View Elementary School in Manhattan Beach sell the fruits of their labor at a farmer’s market that raises money for their school. Photo by Peggy Curry

At Sunday’s Healthy Living Festival, Growing Great hopes to expand its message of healthy living to the broader community through hands-on cooking demonstrations, food samples, emerging water-saving technologies, rock climbing, holistic healers, yoga and a hoola hoop contest.

“People are hungry for education on how to eat better and live a healthier lifestyle,” Bergsund said.

For more information about Growing Great and the Healthy Living Festival, visit www.growinggreat.org. ER

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