Green is the New Burnt Orange at UT Elementary
School gardening program preps Little Longhorns and Their Families for Healthy Living
Just around the corner from the University Elementary School cafeteria, a class of second-graders is sitting on tree stump chairs and watching their teacher point to sketches of plants on a handheld white board.
“Alright! Now I want you all to break into groups and search for this herb,” says Rebecca Vore, the school’s wellness teacher, as she taps her finger to the word “Basil.” While the young gardeners scavenge for a patch of green leaves, a student walks up to Vore with a plant crawling with microscopic bugs.
“Those are aphids,” Vore says. “The ladybugs eat them.” For a moment, the boy stares down at the insects in wonderment. “Well then we shouldn’t get rid of them because
we need our ladybugs,” he exclaims. “This is why we don’t need pesticides in the garden.”
Vore watches her student with delight as he runs back to the garden to share his newfound wisdom with the group.
“You don’t have to spell everything out to them,” she says. “You just have to guide them and let them make these connections on their own.”
It’s Only Natural
When students understand and appreciate their intrinsic bond with nature, they’re able to develop a deeper appreciation for both plant and human life, Vore says. These gardens, she adds, are really outdoor classrooms where children learn valuable lessons—not just about long-term health, but also about science and math, even business.
“They need to have that connection to understand their place in this world,” says Vore, who is proud to work at a school that uniquely offers gardening classes to students of all K-5 grade levels. “If you’re in touch with your sense of place, your sense of self will follow. You can look around and say, ‘Yes, I am a part of all of this.’”
Like scientists in a lab, Vore’s students weave around the leafy garden beds observing the wonders of photosynthesis, insect larvae and metamorphosis. They’re sifting through soil in search of beetles and busily jotting down notes about their findings. This type of fieldwork, Vore says, is the impetus for world-changing innovations—from flight to sonar to electricity.
“In order for them to be prepared for whatever is coming next, they need to put ideas together, make predictions and use their cognitive reasoning skills,” Vore adds. “The best way to do that is by getting their hands dirty.”
UT Elementary alumnus Christian Flores, says he will never forget his time in the garden, where he planted seeds and watched them morph into edible herbs and vegetables. Inspired by his fondest elementary school memories, he recently built five tables and six benches for the garden as part of his Eagle Scout project.
“I really enjoyed being out in the garden and working with my hands,” says Flores, who has enlisted in the U.S. Navy and plans on becoming a combat medic. “It was gratifying watching the plants grow and knowing that I had a part in that.”
The Fruits of Their Labor
One of the biggest perks for the students, Vore adds with a laugh, is getting down and dirty. And though her students aren’t aware of it, they’re getting a bonus PE class while moving soil, carrying heavy watering cans and pushing wheelbarrows. Sometimes Vore will catch a student surreptitiously
munching on a leafy snack.
“I remember this one student who looked like he had his hand caught in the cookie jar,” Vore recalls, smiling. “He had a piece of sorrel in his hand and said apologetically, ‘I just wanted a snack.’ “I just laughed and told him that if he wants to eat sorrel, go right ahead.”
As part of the school’s Healthy Families Initiative, the gardening program promotes physical activity and healthy nutrition for children and their families.
“It’s like ripples in a pond,” she says. “When they get home, they inspire their families to visit the produce aisle and experiment with healthy recipes.”
They learn those recipes in the cafeteria where Kimberly Wilson, the school’s executive chef, shows them how to make healthy snacks such as kale chips and salads with homemade dressing. They even get to taste-test some entrees when Wilson prepares to change the menu. UT Elementary is one of the few schools in Austin that prepares and serves food inhouse by professionally trained chefs.
“We serve a lot of items that many of these kids—and adults—would not be exposed to at home,” Wilson says. “Expanding the palates of the students will help them make better food choices as they grow. If they know what real homemade food is supposed to look and taste like, they will be more aware when they are eating less healthy food.”
In the spirit of healthy eating, the students sell their harvested goods at the local farmers market, where they often meet restaurateurs in need of fresh, locally grown produce.
Restaurant owner Sam Hellman-Mass enjoys bartering with the young vendors and taking their produce back to his East Sixth Street establishment, Suerte. In the future he
aspires to give culinary lessons at the school.
“As a restaurant we have a great opportunity to spark some positive change,” Hellman-ass says. “If we can make a small impact, any impact really, on helping our community have access to better ingredients and cook more and enjoy food more, I think that’s a worthwhile endeavor.”
Like Hellman-Mass, the Little Longhorns are working toward making a positive difference here in Austin and around the world. Whether they’re carrying buckets of water around Ladybird Lake to raise money for well water in Africa or recycling and composting waste to diminish landfill buildup, the young environmentalists are learning how to
become good stewards of the land.
Their efforts were rewarded by the school’s community partner Keep Austin Beautiful, a nonprofit that promotes environmental stewardship among the Austin community. In 2017, students and teachers proudly accepted the Applied Materials Education Award for Best Environmental Education Program at the annual Beautify Bash.
The school has also partnered with Texas Parks and Wildlife, a state agency that oversees and protects wildlife and their habitats. Through these partnerships, conservation experts visit the school to teach lessons in recycling, composting, water health and more. Students also go on field trips to McKinney Falls State Park, where they learn how to become certified anglers.
“We do catch and release, but mostly they’re learning how to cast out their line into the water,” Vore says. “They get to see the park, learn about fish habitats and rules and regulations for fishing. It’s great for them to learn about these resources and how to properly use them.”
Whether they’re casting out into the gentle rapids of McKinney Falls or loading their baskets with herbs and vegetables in the garden, the students are adopting healthy lifestyle choices that they can pass along to their families. That’s the goal of the Healthy Families Initiative, which was launched in 2007 as a result of some concerning data from the student body-mass index report. According to the analysis, 67 percent of students were in the obese/overweight zone during the 2007-08 academic year. That number has dropped down to 41 percent in 2016-17 and continues to decline.
“We teach very young children, so these results were really a wake-up call to our community,” says UT Elementary School Superintendent Mellissa Chavez. “We know that students’ brains work better when their bodies are healthy so we needed to be proactive and address this issue.”
After a gardening session, Vore sees these benefits when her students return to the classroom refreshed and eager to probe deeper into their observations. Now is the time, she says, for young people to step away from the screen and get back in touch with the natural world.
“I cannot tell you about how many children who’ve told me about all the gardening their grandparents did,” Vore says. “Somehow, it skipped a generation or two, so we need to get them to reconnect with the environment and to have them become vocal, educated, concerned adults.”