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NC veggie garden used to teach kids who shun books

By Michael Abramowitz

The Associated Press

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GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — There is more growing around the garden at west Greenville's Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Community Center than meets the eye.

It becomes apparent by listening to the giggling, squeaky voices of a dozen young children moving enthusiastically among the garden beds in the yard behind the center, pulling weeds and tending the newly sprouted vegetable patches.

The community garden, initially funded in 2008 by a $50,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation, was one of the first things the program directors developed when they established the center.

"Gardens are very visual, and there's lots that can happen around them," said Margie Gallagher, professor and associate dean of the East Carolina University College of Human Ecology, which operates the center, following the vision of its founder, the late Lessie Bass.

The garden is tended by people from all of the neighborhood's generations. It provides some important basic nutritional needs to its tenders, but feeds more than their stomachs. It satisfies their appetite for social interaction, nurturing and a sense of place, say those who provide a structured environment that represents their neighborhood in one community center.

For the staff and educators, it also provides an opportunity to teach the center's elementary school children in less traditional ways.

"Nutrition, science, math, growing things and harvesting them — lots of learning opportunities that can kind of sneak up on those anti-book kids," Gallagher said. "They aren't thrilled about adding four plus nine to get 13 until they're counting how many carrots they've grown."

Megan Gatlin, 10, boasted that she learned how to spell "photosynthesis" from her gardening experience.

"That's when plants use sunlight to produce their own food. It's amazing," she said.

Dwight Cannon, 10, said he likes to learn about how deep to plant seeds, but he's mostly in it for the fun.

"You get to work in the soil and get your hands messy," he said. "I didn't know gardening was so much fun. I learned that from Miss Joni."

Miss Joni is Joni Young Torres, botanist and master gardener from the Pitt County Cooperative Extension office. She takes time from her work at the community garden on County Home Road to teach gardening science at the center. Her work is made possible by a grant from Communities Putting Prevention to Work, through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The goal is to encourage people to eat healthy foods and add more physical activity to their lifestyles.

"We're trying to introduce children to fresh fruits and vegetables and replace a lot of the processed foods they eat," Torres said.

Torres turned to the children around her and asked, "When you grow it, you will eat it, right?"

"Yeah," the children shouted in unison.

The garden is a hands-on project-oriented approach to horticultural education but it does much more than simply teach.

Gallagher pointed out the several elevated beds bounded by rail ties allows access to people in wheelchairs who roll along concrete walkways to reach them. That feature illustrates one of the important basic principles of the center: It is intergenerational, bringing disabled and older people into close interactive contact with youngsters.

"The kids learn from their interactions with older people who tell them that, yes, this is actually a vegetable and you can pick it and eat it," she said. "It sparks lots of intergenerational communication and parental engagement."

Torres said that nurturing the plants, particularly outdoors, is an important activity for young people.

"It's a healthy and useful life skill, and they get very excited," she said. "They make lots of observations and ask lots of questions that require immediate answers. They learn patience, teamwork and cooperation out there."

Gallagher said not all the benefits of the program are easily measurable because many show up in the home and family, but many are observable in the classroom.

"We can't be certain the garden is totally responsible (for the children's improved performance in school and at home), but we know, for example, that children who participate in our summer program, including here in the garden, where they do a lot of harvesting, measuring and counting, don't lose ground in their retention of school work over the summer, as most children everywhere do," Gallagher said.

The combination of healthy activity, education and interaction is just the thing that motivates Torres to share the coming summer program with the children at the center.

"Who knows what we'll find out there that we can learn from?" she asked.

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