BOLINGBROOK – Tibbott Elementary School students returned from summer vacation to find their “edible garden” flourishing with a wealth of produce.
A sanctuary boasting more than 20 different herbs, vegetables and fruits, the 2,820-square-foot edible garden is more than just a plot to harvest crops, it is a living laboratory in which students learn about sustainability, nutrition and the ecosystem.
A pilot program administered by the Valley View School District Nutrition Services in August 2012, Tibbott boys and girls spent last spring tilling seeds in their seven planter boxes behind the school, eagerly waiting to view the fruits of their labor.
During the first two weeks of the new year, each class in the kindergarten through sixth grade elementary school has spent time cultivating and harvesting its own garden beds in the 60-by-47-foot plot, picking ripe vegetables, which are then used in cafeteria lunches.
Tibbott Elementary School Principal Ana Wilson affirms that the edible garden program not only helps students eat nutritious meals, but also grants children a hands-on learning experience to see where their food comes from.
“Some children might not know that raddishes, potatoes and onions grow in the ground,” Wilson said. “Working in the garden and digging up these vegetables is a valuable learning tool. Then, eating the vegetables that they just picked helps connect all the dots.”
In the first week of harvesting, the Tibbott edible garden has yielded 3 pounds of cherry tomatoes, 1.25 pounds of tomatoes, .75 pounds of lettuce and an ounce of carrots, according to Valley View Nutrition Services Director Meghan Gibbons.
But the edible garden’s value extends far beyond crop yield and nutritious lunches served in the cafeteria. It has become an outdoor learning space, an environmental science lab providing hands-on ecology, biology and sustainability lessons.
“The mission of the edible garden is to create an outdoor learning environment,” Wilson said. “Integrating the edible garden into all the classes’ curriculum is the ultimate goal.”
While younger Tibbott classes may focus on lessons that answer the question – What truly is a vegetable? – the fifth- and sixth-graders can use the space to study plant growth, biology and soil composition, Wilson said.
For Tibbott’s staff and teachers, constructing the edible garden was a crash course in sustainability and community partnerships.
In 2012, Valley View Nutrition Service Department piloted the edible garden program, giving both Tibbott and Jane Addams Middle schools $5,000 each to construct the space.
After applying and receiving a $2,000 Whole Foods grant from the Willowbrook location, Tibbott staff solicited the help of other community businesses to both plan and construct the outdoor space.
The school was linked up with Wight and Company Emerging Professionals through the Green Apple Day of Service initiative. A pair of architects, a sustainability specialist and a landscape architect then served as mentors, helping the Tibbott staff and parent volunteers and transforming their smaller initial plan into a nearly 3,000-foot space.
The garden is entirely organic, no pesticides are used to maintained crops, and even the rain barrels – which catch rainfall from the gutters, then water the seven planters – are made from recycled large Coca-Cola syrup containers, Wilson said.
Soon, Tibbott and Jane Addams will not be the only schools in the district reaping the benefits of an edible garden. In the upcoming school year, the district’s food services department will issue grants to four new schools who will then build edible gardens, according to Gibbons.
“We have seen a lot success with the two edible garden programs and we are excited to watch it expand to the other schools,” Gibbons said.