Dietitian interns from local universities volunteer in the student nutrition lab.
COURTESY OF MELINDA SMITH

All the knowledge in the world has little value if it isn’t passed on to the next generation — especially if that knowledge would enrich young lives.

In some areas of the country, children are rarely exposed to the outdoors, let alone the practice of gardening, and are thus not often introduced to farm-to-table methods of food production. Fortunately, many educators and garden suppliers understand the importance of spreading knowledge of produce gardening and nutrition.

The gardens and kitchen at the Jonesboro HWES school introduces young students to the tools they need to grow their own vegetables and build healthy dietary habits.
COURTESY OF MELINDA SMITH

In Jonesboro, Ark., this inspired a partnership between the Jonesboro Public Schools district and several businesses and organizations throughout the region, resulting in a rapidly growing elementary school gardening program that teaches produce cultivation, nutrition and other useful skills.

In 2008, the Jonesboro schools received a sizeable magnet school grant, which restructured the district’s 10 elementary schools into magnet programs concentrating on areas of study such as math and science, international studies, visual/performing arts and wellness and environmental studies. Elementary-age students in the district choose which magnet school they want to attend.

This was also the start of the student garden and nutrition lab at the Jonesboro Health/Wellness & Environmental Studies (HWES) school. Melinda Smith, magnet specialist at the HWES magnet school, says there was a lot of work to do from the beginning of the program.

“We had existing courtyards that were just unused,” Smith says. “So, we converted that space. We had a dispersal of the grant funds for three years, then we had to be self-sustainable after that. So, we took those three years and more to transform those courtyards into gardens.”

As the HWES school’s population expanded, a new cafeteria was built onto it and the old kitchen was converted into a nutrition lab for student use. The converted courtyard and kitchen spaces allow students to have hands-on gardening and food preparation experience, teaching them the basic concepts of the farm-to-table process.

COURTESY OF MELINDA SMITH

The program has benefited from several partnerships, including a relationship with the local master gardener’s organization of Craighead Country, Arkansas. The program also receives support from dietician interns, who take time away from their studies at local universities to lend their expertise in the HWES school’s nutrition lab. The local master gardeners are true partners of the student gardeners, Smith says.

“A lot of schools, they just want [master gardeners] to come in and landscape, not be part of an educational program,” Smith says. “It took a while to get [the local organization] on board, but now they’re at full force.”

Many students in the Jonesboro public schools district have few opportunities to work in the outdoors. The student gardens give them hands-on experience in the useful skill of vegetable gardening.
COURTESY OF MELINDA SMITH

Businesses, local and outside Arkansas alike, also lend resources to help keep the student gardens and nutrition lab operational, including California-based seed wholesaler Renee’s Garden. Owner Renee Shepherd donates vegetable seeds on a regular basis, which helps fuel the program’s thrice-yearly plant sales. These sales help fund the HWES gardens and nutrition lab.

“We’re sustainable because Renee donates seeds to us, and we have three small greenhouses now. We grow our plants by seed,” Smith says. “We’re generating money, maybe $5,000 to $6,000 [from] all three, and that’s with Renee donating seeds and that’s with dumpster diving for pots, that kind of thing. It does end up being profit for us, because of the donations we get.”

After nearly ten years, the student gardens and kitchen are at a point Smith never thought she’d see, and she hopes to develop the program even more in the future. In a region dominated by corporate farms and apartment complexes, she’s glad to be fostering enthusiasm for and knowledge of outdoor activities.

“If you go outside our city, there are crops, but people aren’t really growing their own food,” Smith says. “It’s soybeans and cotton and things like that. Most of our kids are in apartment-type settings, where they step off the bus, onto asphalt and into their homes. There are no yards or things like that. They’re just not exposed to that at their house. We do some things like container gardening and things that they can do at home — this gives them a chance to have a little stimulation in the outdoors.”