Students lead charge to change food served in cafeteria



How do you get teenagers to eat fresh, healthy food? Give them the tools and support to grow their own.

That’s been the experience of 16-year-old Sam Levin and fellow students involved in Project Sprout, an organic student-run garden on the grounds of Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

In fact, gardening activities have not only affected teenagers’ tastes, but the palates of preschool, elementary and middle school students as well.

“It’s completely student-run, and it’s all volunteer,” said Sam, one of seven Project Sprout founders and a junior at Monument High. In two years, the garden has tripled in size to 12,000 square feet and garnered the support of students and educators throughout the school district, including after-school care programs and garden clubs.

“No one gets credits or stipends,” Sam said. “It’s just friends asking friends to lend a hand.” On any given week, 30 to 100 young people flock to the site—formerly a soccer field—to weed, hoe, rake and sample the vegetables and fruits they help grow. The garden yields 50 to 100 pounds of produce weekly for school lunches, community soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

Attitudes toward food have changed because of students’ involvement in and awareness of the garden. Take “Turnip Thursday,” for example. Ben Fish, one of Project Sprout’s founders and now a senior, started the ritual by bringing a freshly plucked turnip to class once a week and urging classmates, almost as a dare, to try a bite. Most kids were skeptical at first, but some mustered up the courage to try it. Every week, when Ben asked who wanted a piece, a few more students raised their hands.

“What we’ve found is that kids are much more willing to eat vegetables when they’re involved in growing them,” said Carol Gunderson, director of the Food Literacy Project at Oxmoor Farm in Louisville, Kentucky. Gunderson spoke to visitors who toured the project’s farm as part of the Sierra Club’s Healthy Foods Local Farms Conference in November. The Food Literacy Project provides hands-on education for families, schools and other groups through a partnership with a working farm.

School gardens “provide a purposeful way to connect children with food,” said John Delautre, head of St. Francis School in Goshen, Kentucky, which was also part of the tour. The private school’s entire student body—230 preschool through eighth graders—take part in caring for its six organic fruit and vegetable plots.

Because the children are involved in planting, tending and harvesting the crops, Delautre said, they are much more excited about the prospect of eating them. “When you hear two third grade boys debating what ingredients make the best salsa, you know you’ve won a victory of sorts,” he said.

Homegrown Lunch

Sam pointed to the school lunch menu at his high school as evidence of change. Before the garden was launched, only four to sixsam-levin of Monument High’s 630 students chose salads for lunch on an average day. But when the cafeteria offered the first salads made with Project Sprout’s harvests, a miracle occurred: more than 70 salads were sold.

Exposure to healthy foods at a young age is critical in developing good eating habits, according to Sam. “As a kid, I ate of lot of candy,” he confessed. “My parents always made stuff like fried zucchini and cheese souffle for our meals, but I was never forced to eat it. If I wanted, I could skip dinner and eat dessert. They were very loose about that.”

By age 10, Sam voluntarily started consuming all healthy dishes, such as salads, on a nightly basis. Because of the eating habits he acquired at home, he never developed a taste for fast food. Today he lives by a new slow-food adage: Friends don’t let friends eat fast food. “If I’m in the car and they say they’re going to a fast food place, I say, ‘No, you’re not.’ I just won’t let them go. Or I’ll tell them to stop and let me out of the car. I won’t go.”

Although he’s not tempted by potato chips or processed snack foods, Sam admits he’s no puritan. “I do like chocolate. I eat a lot of chocolate bars.”

Veggies in Vogue

School gardens such as Project Sprout and the one at St. Francis appear to be part of a national trend. Edible schoolyards, propelled by Alice Waters, a leader in the slow food movement, have sprung up across the country in recent years.

The newly formed Kentucky School Garden Network, comprised of educators, business owners and farmers, has set its sites on creating sustainable edible gardens in every school in the state.

Many schools are simply reviving old garden sites, presumably left fallow with the rise of the industrial food system after World War II. For example, in the 1930s, middle and high schools in Jefferson County had edible gardens to help supply their cafeterias, according to David Wicks, former coordinator of environmental education for the county’s public school system.


Although Project Sprout was Sam’s brainchild, he credits the support of his guidance counselor, Michael Powell, and the work all the students have invested in the garden.

garden3“I’m just a messenger for something incredible that happened in my community.” In addition to Sam Levin and Ben Fish, Project Sprout founders include: Aaron Moser, now a student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Sarah Steadman, who attends Hampshire in Massachusetts; seniors Natalie Akers and Kurt Alles; and sophomore Annalena Barrett.


Interested in getting a garden going at your school?

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  1. This is terrific. Getting teens involved really helps shape their attitudes and helps them reconnect to what used to be common but is harder to learn about food. They learn about community, leadership, success and failure…all healthy things to help make adult life easier.

    From 4 salads to 70! Amazing stuff!

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