A focus on Mother Nature at St. Louis Catholic School

There was a harvest of sorts at St. Louis Catholic School in Clarksville earlier this week, when fifth-graders Claire Nilan and Patrick DeBoy filled a basket with dozens of radishes — the first picked from the school's new garden.

For Claire, tending a garden meant a chance to be outdoors and in the dirt, and the radishes, she reflected, were much easier to harvest than wild onions she pulled out of her yard. Patrick, too, enjoyed the chance to don gardening gloves and get to work.

"I like to see if they're red and ready," Patrick said of the radishes. "If they're not ready, you just stick them back in the ground."

The radishes were ready on Tuesday, Sept. 4, and fifth-grade health teacher Zulma Whiteford was excited.

"This is connecting them to the earth, and to connect them to the value of Mother Nature and to have them become stewards of the earth," Whiteford said.

Though the garden is maintained by Whiteford's health class, it was planted before school started by summer camp students and was made possible by a grant from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

The grant, totaling about $600, according to the school's director of development, Colleen Craig, is from a program within the center, called the Baltimore Food and Faith Project.

The focus of the grant is to encourage organic, locally supported gardens, Whiteford said. As a result, the supplies for the three garden beds were purchased at family-owned Kendall Hardware and the students planted locally sourced seeds.

Currently, there are radishes, spinach and kale growing in the garden, but Whiteford said the plan is to expand the garden in the spring, and to include zucchini and tomatoes, among other vegetables. In addition to teaching students about the environment, Whiteford said, the garden also is teaching them about healthy living.

"Childhood obesity continues to be on the rise, and that's disturbing," she said. "We know better. We know that we need to take care of our kids and provide them with healthy options, and my goal with this class is to provide them with opportunities to see what healthy snacks can be like."

The garden is the latest of several initiatives St. Louis (pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade) has undertaken to be a more healthy and green school.

Last year, the student government began the first-ever recycling campaign at the school, Craig said, and reduced the school's trash pick-up from five to three days a week. The pre-kindergarten has also been named a Healthy Howard child care program, and the school is moving away from its tradition of giving candy to students on their birthdays. On their birthdays, students will instead receive passes allowing them to wear sweat shirts and sneakers.

In addition, Whiteford said, a cafeteria menu was revamped this year to encourage a healthier lifestyle.

"We're trying to get kids moving more, and the teachers, too," Craig said. "There's talk of a Zumba class for the teachers, and after-school there's a cross-country team, which we didn't have before. With the limited time we have during the school day, because we're trying to pack in all of the academics, we're trying to ramp up the after-school activities to get the kids moving."

It all goes back to things like the garden, Whiteford said — getting education off the page and getting kids out of their seats.

"All the research shows that the healthier the kids are, the more active they are, the better they're going to perform," Whiteford said. "It all ties in together."

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