Any inquiry starts with a question. In this case, Suzen Polk-Hoffses, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Milbridge Elementary School, wondered how she could break down the four walls of her classroom and build a bridge between her community and her students. She noticed that teaching and schooling had become so isolated between teachers and students and their community. But how could she build a bridge between the two?
The Women for Healthy Rural Living (WHRL), a local organization, had another wondering. With food being so expensive, how could families get fresh vegetables and healthy food? With community volunteers, they began a project called Incredible Edible Milbridge. They built raised bed gardens throughout the town to grow pick-your-own vegetables. When Suzen heard about the project, she had the seed of an idea.
Suzen asked WHRL for a couple of raised beds for the school. Community members came to the school to build them and talked to the students about soil and seeds. Students planted their very own pumpkins. When their seedlings were ready, they walked them to the town garden to plant. Suzen knew that her little students would want to visit their pumpkins over the summer. During those visits, their families would see all the other vegetables available for free. These visits helped create buy-in from the community about the Incredible Edible and school gardening projects.
Since then, she and her students have learned about composting. They ate a salad that they grew in their raised beds. In the fall, students gleaned the garden finding the last vegetables of the season. As little ones, their unique perspective lets them find hidden treasures. The students enjoy trying beans and lettuce fresh from the garden and taking a bag of nutritious food home to their families. Suzen says projects like these help her students feel safe and welcome at school. When their heart is safe, they are ready to learn and find their place in their community.
Going into this project, Suzen admits she didn’t know anything about gardening or nutrition. She has learned along the way through community partnerships, like the one with WHRL. They connected her to Maine Agriculture in the Classroom, who granted her money for professional development. With the support of her administration, she wrote a grant to take her students and their parents to tour local farms. Many parents were surprised to learn about the variety of farms so close by. They discovered more opportunities to get nutritious locally grown food.
How will this project grow? Next month, the Seedling Reading Story Hour begins, where community members will read gardening stories and do activities with the Kindergarten and First-Grade classes. The older students help the younger students plant and tend to their seeds. Of course, students will walk their new pumpkin seedlings to the Milbridge gardens in the spring.