On an overcast Thursday morning, David Thi was a man with a mission.
OK, "man" might be a stretch. In any case, the Fern Creek Elementary second-grader was possessed with a burning task.
"David, what are you doing, buddy?" asked teacher Laura Bell.
"Putting in the dirt," the 7-year-old said, depositing soil into a planter beside him. "Gotta get more dirt!"
With that, he joined his schoolmates sinking shovels into the compost mound rising outside the Orlando school.
For the students busy turning over soil, busting weeds, and constructing planting beds for a new school vegetable garden, it was the perfect storm of kiddie fun: dirt, bugs and tools. Yet, when you, er, dig deeper, there was far more at play than play.
Their hard work will yield the first American Heart Association Teaching Garden at a Central Florida school. Principal Patrick Galatowitsch hopes by embracing the garden-based laboratory that students will learn to cultivate both crops and lifelong healthy eating habits.
It's a grand idea that should be widely replicated. And not just because research such as the study "How Zucchini Won Fifth-Grade Hearts" suggests hands-on school garden experiences till a greater willingness in kids to make peace with their veggie archenemies.
It's also an inspired stroke to help break the unhealthy eating cycle that often plagues kids like the student gardeners at Fern Creek. Many of the school's pupils hail from the Parramore neighborhood, 90 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, and nearly a quarter are considered homeless.
Low-income kids often are slaves to diets heavy in low-cost, high-fat, high-sodium foods — but light on produce. If you are what you eat, lower-income eaters tend to be sicker with diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and other diseases than their counterparts.
And society bears the cost. A recent study puts the annual cost of health disparities at $1.24 trillion in loss of lives, productivity, and health-care costs for minorities and other low-income Americans.
"I'm not sure we can assume that teaching young kids in elementary school about gardens will break that cycle," says Lisa Barkley, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. But "when kids learn about gardens in schools, they can be a catalyst to improve nutrition at home as well. They are also more likely to eat more vegetables when they are part of growing them."
For most of the Fern Creek kids, growing stuff was a new thing. But, the day wasn't just about worms and dirt, glorious dirt. It was, after all, still school. Each turn of the shovel provided life lessons.
About sustainability. About the thrift involved in growing your own food. About how to avoid taking a rake to the face.
As kids worked, trays of Flat Dutch cabbage, sage, basil, Green Globe artichokes, Black Beauty zucchini and red bell peppers awaited planting.
At home, Kevinnia Duverne scarfs down mac and cheese and prefers potatoes when asked about her favorite veggie. Hardly surprising, given that french fries account for 25 percent of the vegetable intake of children.
Still, 7-year-old Kevinnia, sporting a pink shirt emblazoned with blooming wildflowers and bushy braids that dangle like wild willow, is eager to try the lettuce and the other vegetables " 'cause it's healthy."
Come harvest time, Bell said they'll sample the crop raw, grilled and in other ways to determine what kids prefer.
Later Thursday, 7-year-old Sophia Sullivan plucked a romaine lettuce seedling from the tray. She plunged her tiny fingers deep into the soil. From the seedling, she hopes something big and leafy will sprout.
And the larger hope from digging in the dirt is that a fancy for vegetables will take root.
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