vegetables on chopping board

Food For Thought: Planting the Seeds of Health and Gardening in Young Minds

By: Courtney Graves

If you think it’s difficult getting middle school students to eat fruits and vegetables, try having them grow and cook their own too. That’s exactly what the Master Food Volunteer Program, with the help of Extension Master Gardeners of the Virginia Cooperative Extension, is doing with their “Food For Thought” project. The program has established four 45-minute classes each quarter at James Madison Middle School in Roanoke, Virginia to show kids the benefits of making food for themselves. Students learn plant anatomy, gardening techniques, and cooking skills that they can later share with their families.

SOLs ensure that children have the book knowledge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are able to apply it. “Food For Thought” regularly adapts recipes to reinforce concepts students learn in their other classes. So far, the program has taught on pollination, energy, soil, companion plants, and uses of herbs. Two women who play critical roles in the operation of the “Food For Thought” pro-gram are lead Master Food Volunteer Mary Harshfield and lead Master Gardener Volun-teer Linda Van Luik. Both are responsible for scheduling, coordinating volunteers, modify-ing lessons, gathering and cleaning supplies, and leading class discussions.

“My favorite part of the job is seeing the kids get excited about making something for themselves. It’s a great feeling to know that you’re helping to broaden their horizons,” said Harshfield.

tomatoes on plant

The kids aren’t the only ones broadening their horizons. “Most volunteers are comfortable with going somewhere and simply presenting a power point,” said Van Luik. “They’re not used to this level of hands-on activity with children or having to go out and actually find plants to bring in. but once they get involved, they realize it’s actually not too difficult, and it can be a really fun team-building activity.”

As of now, there is a limit to how many students can attend the sessions. The program’s primary challenge is simply finding enough space. With 4 long lab tables in the room al-ready, there’s not much elbow room for all the students, faculty, and volunteers that want to participate.

Hopefully, other schools will realize the valuable work happening at James Madison Middle School, and be inspired to initiate similar programs.

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