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October 9, 2012

Susick Elementary reaps more than just veggies from school garden

By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
Susick Elementary students listen to Rob Blehm’s presentation on the new school garden.
Blehm, director of Macomb Fresh, talks about radishes, tomatoes and other vegetables ready for harvest from the garden.
 

MACOMB COUNTY — As Rob Blehm explained how fall’s cooler temperatures are starting to stunt the growth of cucumbers, a kindergartner piped up: “What’s a cucumber?”

Blehm instantly held out a stubby pickle cucumber — plucked just moments earlier from the very garden in which he stood outside Susick Elementary — for the student to see and touch.

The school is one of five locally to receive a 1,000-square-foot garden from Macomb Fresh, an initiative of Hope Center in Macomb in Fraser. The program, which aims to establish 45 such gardens in five years, is funded by a United Way grant and runs in partnership with the Michigan State University Extension.

“My passion is to change … the next generation,” said Blehm, Macomb Fresh’s program director. “We need to get them to understand that food does not come from a drive-thru window.”

Starting work in late May, Blehm and volunteers installed the garden in a corner of Susick’s schoolyard and constructed an adjacent pavilion, which funnels rainwater from its roof into a plastic reservoir to provide irrigation.

While students were on break, vegetables began to emerge, and the patch of land is now bursting with produce: squashes, zucchinis, tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, beans, radishes, cauliflower and more.

Principal Pat Cavanaugh called the garden an “outdoor classroom” that complements learning in the traditional setting. Susick hopes to eventually expand the area, he said, and perhaps even build a greenhouse.

Students will help with the harvest in the fall and the planting in the spring. They’ll have special classes among the leaves and vines, receive nutrition education from the MSU Extension and even consume the food culled from the garden, he said.

“All of the food we grow here the kids will be eating themselves, whether it be during lunch or during snack time,” he said. “So it’s going to instill the idea of healthy eating and healthy snacks during the school day, and that obviously can boost student achievement as well.”

Blehm said they plan to have a fundraiser to help cover future garden costs by selling “Growums,” kid-focused kits for starting several vegetable plants at home that later can be transplanted to the school garden.

Each kit has a unique code that can be registered online, allowing children to receive emails with videos on how to care for their plants, explanations of the signs of growth they might be seeing, etc., said Blehm.

The garden’s establishment fulfills a wish for many at the school. Teacher Barbara Gottschalk attended multiple workshops on launching school gardens, but she wasn’t sure how to make it a reality at Susick in terms of funding and labor. In a stroke of serendipity, she met Blehm at a conference, and the project took off from there.

Cubmaster Dawn Davis said the first- through fifth-graders in her Cub Scout Pack 1711 have long wanted to help with a community garden as a service project, but they were uncertain where they could do it — until now.

“We walked up here all summer and looked at the progress,” she said. “This is phenomenal.”

Blehm said the United Way grant calls for him, within three years, to find “a champion” for each garden, and ideally, it’ll be a local Boy Scout troop or the like.

Susick students got their first formal look at the garden’s bounty during a grand opening event Sept. 13. Blehm discussed how soil, sun and water make things grow and pointed out the various vegetables.

The kids oohed and ahhed as he held up a tiny green bean and a lumpy radish, and were awed by a row of tall sunflowers whose broad faces, Blehm explained, contain many edible seeds.

Students waved their hands wildly as Blehm hoisted a just-picked tomato above his head and asked, “Who here wants to eat this in their school lunch?”

Whispered conversations broke out among the crowd as the children conferred on which vegetables they liked and disliked.

Pleasantview Elementary School and Kelly Middle School in East Detroit Public Schools; Lutz School, a Macomb Intermediate School District building; and Clintondale Middle School in Clintondale Community Schools also were included in the first wave of Macomb Fresh grants. The plan is to put gardens at 10 schools annually for the next four years.

For more information on Macomb Fresh, call Blehm at (586) 212-4848 or email macombfresh @hopecentermacomb.org. For more information on Hope Center in Macomb, visit www.hopecenter macomb.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Cortney Casey at ccasey@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1046.