By STEVEN NALLEY
With a little help, the garden at Emerson Family Resource Center has weathered sun and storms alike.
Several days of scorching heat and unabated sun have been unkind to crops across Mississippi. When rain finally did come to Starkville, it also brought damaging winds and lightning, knocking over one of the garden’s tallest sunflowers. Otherwise, the garden has endured, and Anna Howard, an intern from the Gaining Ground Institute of Mississippi, said it’s largely because of the pre-schoolers at Emerson.
“The kids have been watering (the garden) so much, it hasn’t really been affected by the weather,” Howard said. “(The plants) looked a little down, I think, (because) it was such a hard rain. I’m sure once they’ve been out in the sun a little while, they’ll perk back up.”
Emerson’s pre-school students are developing green thumbs and healthy eating habits from interns like Howard through the school’s Fresh Start program each Friday.
Lisa Long, co-president of the Emerson Preschool Parent Teacher Organization, said the interns spend 20-30 minutes on activities with each of Emerson’s preschool classes between 9 a.m. and lunch. Before the interns leave, they showcase fresh vegetables, and during the children’s lunch and nap, the interns use those vegetables to prepare healthy snacks, which they serve at 2 p.m.
“For the months of June and July, Douglas (McRae, another intern) and Anna are leading the children in activities each Friday,” Long said, “such as watering, weeding, hunting for worms and picking vegetables from our garden, reading about gardening and plant life cycles, observing live baby chicks, cooking food made with produce from the garden, watching lady bugs grow in our ladybug land, hunting for pesky worms that may be eating plants in our garden and more.”
Denise Williams, pre-school coordinator at Emerson, said the pre-schoolers enjoy the activities, especially the garden. While the interns provide significant assistance, the pre-schoolers actually work on the garden themselves, she said.
“Because they have hands-on experience, they’re enjoying it,” Williams said. They feel (like) a part of the activity, because they get to see something grow. They have their own small shovels, rakes and tools to work in the garden.”
Long said she hopes to continue some of the activities the interns develop this summer after the current MSU interns leave in July, with new interns carrying them through August and beyond. She said Fresh Start began in June 2011 when concerned parents of children attending Emerson began to discuss children’s eating habits, difficulties providing fresh fruits and vegetables at home, and increasing childhood obesity in Mississippi.
“One mother in particular, Clémence Bouvard, examined the school menu and voiced her concerns about the quality and amount of processed foods being offered,” Long said. “School administration, staff and parents agreed that change was necessary and acknowledged the importance of creating a foundation for wellness to shape life-long habits and positively affect the current status of our children’s health.”
From there, Long said, one connection led to many more. Emerson PTO member Alison Buehler was also a member of Gaining Ground’s board, she said. Buehler and Gaining Ground linked Emerson to Don Autry of D&G Farm near Tupelo and Nate Rosenberg, a Harvard law school graduate who advised them on farm-to-school programming, she said.
“Initial changes were implemented in 2011 with an overhaul of the school menu, replacing processed high-sugar snacks with fresh fruits and healthier snacks such as yogurt or string cheese, replacing white processed bread and crackers with whole grain and wheat and replacing canned vegetables with fresh or frozen vegetables,” Long said. “Emerson is fortunate to have a talented and dedicated cook, Laura Roberson, who knows how to cook from scratch and is excited to prepare food for children using the fresh foods.”
Then, in 2012, Fresh Start received a $3,500 grant, most of which Long said is used to buy fresh produce for students. She said MSU played a critical role when its Freshman Council chose a revamp of its garden for its “Big Event” Volunteer Day in March.
“We also benefited early on from the expertise of (the) MSU Extension Service’s Master Gardener’s Program when we received advice on how to organize our garden as we prepared it for use this summer,” Long said. “Tim Morgan, a recent graduate of MSU, generously offered his time and expertise in filming (an educational outreach film on Fresh Start). This film is featured on the (Mississippi) Department of Health website ... and is one of our early success stories.”
Long said Fresh Start is also intended as a model for other schools in the state, aided by Morgan’s film. She said response to Fresh Start, both locally and statewide, has been positive and enthusiastic.
“Parents at Emerson are excited that their children are being served healthier foods and enjoying fun and educational activities in the pre-school garden,” Long said. “Fresh Start has also had calls and emails from other parents interested in learning from our experiences so that they can launch their own similar farm-to-school programs at their children’s childcare settings and schools.”
Long said the Healthy Starkville grant concludes in November and is not renewable, but Emerson is already making plans to keep the program going afterward.
“Our plans rely largely on the expansion of local farmers providing healthy menu items in a cost-effective manner,” Long said. “We may also seek to link farmers with available farm-to-school subsidy programs. The Emerson PTO may hold fundraisers for Fresh Start through T-shirt sales, etc. Once incorporated into ongoing lesson plans, we hope the school garden and related activities will be used year after year, long after our children have graduated from Emerson Preschool.”