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Originally published Saturday, May 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Auburn High School hopes garden is step in healthier direction

The future of the Auburn School District's school-lunch program is a cropping of spindly sticks protruding from a bumpy plot of grass next...

Times South King County Reporter

The future of the Auburn School District's school-lunch program is a cropping of spindly sticks protruding from a bumpy plot of grass next to Auburn High School.

With a little luck and some spring sunshine, the sticks will sprout into fruit-bearing trees — the start of a garden designed to bear produce for the district's school-lunch program.

The garden, roughly an acre, won't feed an entire school district of more than 14,000 students, but child-nutrition-services director Eric Boutin hopes it can make a difference. As rising food costs and a childhood-obesity crisis pressure school-lunch programs to be both healthful and cost-efficient, Boutin says the garden can connect kids to the whole, healthful foods they need to be eating.

"We need to find a way to feed our kids better," Boutin said.

His answer: School kitchens will use produce from the garden. Fresh vegetables could appear on the salad bar and dishes like roasted rosemary chicken will make use of fresh herbs.

It may be the only such garden in Washington; a spokesman for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said no other district grows its own food for school lunches.

With children's diets a mounting concern, the traditional lunch-menu rotation of chicken nuggets, pizza and tater tots isn't acceptable anymore, Boutin said.

Boutin has made healthful eating a priority across the district, which serves nearly 11,000 meals a day.

So in April, students from an Auburn High horticulture class planted apple, plum and pear trees. Boutin has plans for an herb garden, vegetables, native plants and flowers.

Students have a direct hand in planting the garden. High-school horticulture students work on it regularly, and Washington Elementary has an after-school program and a planned summer program for kids to help out with the garden.

At Washington, students already choose vegetables from a fresh salad bar.

"They actually eat it," said Sherry Bloomstrom, the school's kitchen manager.

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One day, when the garden produces vegetables, Boutin envisions they'll have a place on the salad bar.

He says it's a misconception that school-cafeteria cooks don't know how to make nutritious meals. They can cook healthfully — they just aren't given enough money to spend, he said.

The district has a food budget of $4 million a year; that leaves about $1 for each lunch. Preparing the most healthful meals using fresh, local ingredients would cost more than that, Boutin said.

Experts say school gardens help students learn firsthand about the kinds of foods they should be eating.

Gardens are a powerful context for learning, said Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, a California-based institute that pioneered the Rethinking School Lunch program.

A school garden helps even the youngest children understand the cycles of nature, she said, and children are much more engaged when they take part in the learning.

School gardens, in some capacity, are popular. In California alone, there are thousands, Barlow said.

But, she said, Boutin's plan to use produce from the school garden in school lunches is less common.

Students say they might be more apt to eat school lunches if the food is made with ingredients that they've seen grow.

"They'll [the school lunches] look a lot better than they do now," said Ana Ceja, 16.

Lauren Vane: 206-464-2926 or lvane@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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