Students at Little Falls Community High School grow their corn and eat it too.
Also, their tomatoes, watermelons, grapes, squash, onions, carrots and much more.
A unique course, entitled Garden to Table, is offered in high school for the second consecutive year. Led by Matt Petrowitz, teacher of industrial technology and agriculture, and Julie Slettom, teacher of family and consumer sciences, students are enjoying a bountiful harvest this fall. All of this was grown by them or their classmates in the school garden, located on the campus of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.
“We plant it in the spring, then we harvest it in the fall,” Petrowitz said.
Petrowitz said her part of the class started about nine or ten years ago. He has established a bond with the sisters to maintain their garden, which he estimates has been producing for around 130 years.
Prior to last school year, all food was taken to the school kitchens to be incorporated into the lunch program. However, after Sister Ruth retired and the school took full control of the program, they decided to change things.
Not only do the students plant and harvest the garden – which is about the size of two football fields – but they also learn what to do with it once it’s out of the ground or out of the vine, whatever the case may be.
This is where Slettom comes in.
Petrowitz manages the farming and gardening portion of the class. Last year, Slettom partnered with him to teach students what they can do with the fruits – and vegetables – of their labor.
“We’re going to talk about everything from eating it fresh in different ways and some unique ways to try it to how to store it,” Slettom said. “We’re going to talk about freezing, the right way to can it, we bought some dehydrators to dry it out, maybe make a soup mix with some of the veggies.”
She said her goal was to show students how easy it is to grow and eat more fresh, home-grown foods versus canned goods, which often contain preservatives, artificial colors, and more. This is something she said is not only easy but also economical and has more nutritional value.
The course is offered to students in grades 9 through 12. A grant from the Little Falls Education Association helped them purchase some of the equipment for the canning and canning portion of the lessons.
Slettom said even she and Petrowitz were taken aback by the interest in the class heading into her sophomore year.
“We weren’t expecting the sign-up – the excitement we had,” she said. “We had planned 20 to 30 children for this year. When she came over and said, ‘Well, I kind of messed up your schedules. You will have 90.’ He and I nearly fell.
On the first day of class, Slettom said they took the students out into the garden in what was more of an excursion-type setting. They had the chance to walk through the rows and identify the different fruits and vegetables that were growing. After that, it was also time to get to work.
They spent their class time harvesting everything by hand. Slettom said they plan to have it all picked up by the end of September. Petrowitz and fellow agricultural instructor Gabi Molitor will be back in April or May to plant next year’s crop.
“Once we’ve finished harvesting everything and cleared the ground and they can plow it, ready for next spring, we’ll put the kids to work in the upper tunnel,” Slettom said. “We will plant cool weather crops. A little more lettuce, a little more radish, maybe some kale, things that can tolerate a little more chill.
Slettom said the children learn important skills that they can use for the rest of their lives. Some are already making good use of it.
They are encouraged to try the foods as they work on the harvest. Some even brought home fresh vegetables or fruits to share with their families.
“We’re just trying to reinstill some of our farming roots in some of these kids,” Slettom said. “Some of the kids kind of decided, ‘Hmmm…it’s not for me.’ But there are others who really like it. They are very practical learners.
She said that when class started, they were a curious bunch. When they came across a tomato that didn’t look good, they asked why it didn’t look good and if it was still good to eat.
On September 14, students were pulling up corn stalks. They were told to remove the silk and husk to check if there was a viable ear of corn. If there was, it was placed in a burlap sack and taken back to school.
“I’m actually going to roast them and we’re going to do like a Mexican corn, and do like a bean and corn salsa, something they may not have had,” Slettom said.
Using cucumbers from the school garden, Slettom said one of his goals is for each student in the class to take home their own jar of dill pickles that they put in their own canned.
Along the way, they also learn about different ways to grow fruits and vegetables.
Slettom said the sisters are organic farmers. They do not use pesticides and only apply natural fertilizers. During the harvest, Petrowitz explains the different types of irrigation and insists that everything out there is a living thing that needs water to survive.
Ultimately, Slettom thinks it’s a great way to get kids outside and behind a screen.
“You can get a lot of useful tips on YouTube, we all know that,” she said. “But there is such a thing as doing it yourself. You really have to get out there, get your hands dirty, and learn how to do some of these things.
Sheila Watercott, who works in the district in a grant-funded position focused on youth drug prevention, is also involved with the Garden to Table class. She said total wellness is a big part of drug prevention, which is why the class appeals to her.
“We will be doing a lot throughout October to really highlight what is happening in the school garden and how involved our school family is and how much that is actually used in our school meals. “, Watercott said.
Much of the food will also be brought to elementary schools for lunches and breakfasts. She plans to bring photos and videos of high school students working in the garden to give younger children and even parents and staff a better understanding of where their food comes from while emphasizing the importance of ‘a healthy diet.
“It’s all so exciting,” Watercott said.
Slettom said the enthusiasm was shared by many students in the class. Even during the first week of school, she said she heard children telling their parents how much they loved the class.
Part of what makes class great, for them, is just the ability to be outside.
“I know so much about the health benefits of being in nature and being outdoors, so it’s just a win-win,” Watercott said. “It’s so good for mental health; it is so good for physical health. You are exercising without even realizing it.
“They love being outside,” Slettom said. “It’s better than being in a classroom every day. The fresh air, you are with your friends, you work in the garden; what a way to learn.