What's growing

A few of Betsey Carrier’s 4K students reach for the ripest raspberries in the Washburn School Garden. (Contributed photo by Betsy Carver)

Greta Kochevar and Lori Filbert met in the Washburn High School cafeteria the week before classes started to talk about what’s growing in the Washburn School Garden and can be turned into school lunches – the primary function of the garden.

“Kale, green beans, basil, dill, tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli,” reported Kochevar, the district’s green and healthy school coordinator and the high school’s family and consumer science teacher.

Potatoes, beets and onions were not far behind the other produce in the 6,400-square-foot elementary school teaching garden that Kochevar manages. She also oversees the WHS tunnel, where students tend, study, harvest, and sell produce to the community – and occasionally donate to Filbert’s kitchen.

Filbert is the district’s food service director, who prepares and serves deliciously nutritious meals daily at the the district’s cafeterias.

After hearing Kochevar’s veggie recital, Filbert checked off “salad bar ingredients” for her first week of school menu plan.

“Kids love the salad bar. They seem to enjoy eating what they (or their friends) grow,” she said.

The district has been committed since 2005 to environmental responsibility, sustainability education, and health and wellness initiatives involving every student from 4K through high school. Washburn was the first school in the region to establish a farm-to-school teaching garden with Americorps members as managers. (Kochevar was a manager from 2008-2011). The district was recognized in 2009 as a Wisconsin Green & Healthy School, and in October 2017 received a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools District Sustainability award. 

All that work paid off when five kids from the elementary school were invited to plant the White House garden in 2016 with first lady Michelle Obama.

But that is all in the past. As the school year began, it was all about healthy meals in the cafeterias.

“Next Friday we’re having roasted veggies,” Filbert informed Kochevar. “So whatever smaller amounts of veggies you have, I can mix into that.”

 Kochevar suggested the few beets ready for harvest. “Excellent! I can make those into a chocolate cake, too.”

That is how their conversations will ping and pong from now until Halloween when the kids put the school garden to bed. Meanwhile, Kochevar and her students will take weekly inventory; Filbert will menu-plan, and two soon-to-be-hired Americorps members will deliver the goods. Dishes like Greek cucumber salad with tzatziki sauce will show up on the kids’ lunch trays.

All that is possible because the district is so deeply invested in the effort. It now is home to a teaching garden, the high tunnel, an apple orchard, an aquaponics lab, and three pollinator gardens, providing healthy insects to make these gardens grow. Keeping this beehive buzzing requires careful orchestration between teachers, administration and students. Besides Kochevar and Filbert, other players include the summer crew.

This summer the school hired two garden caretakers: Washburn alumna Emily Wiatr and Northland College graduate Ryan Padrutt, who did everything from creating a new pumpkin patch in the elementary school habitat improvement area to installing a pollinator panel in the WHS Washburn castle garden. This educational panel displays examples of materials needed by pollinators for nesting and overwintering.  

Also this summer, 10th graders Caroline Ray, Lily Wheeler, and Seth Johnson worked as high tunnel agripreneurs. In its fourth year, the program gives students a stipend-paid opportunity to wear two hats: farmer and entrepreneur. This summer they grew more than $1,200 worth of basil, green beans, melon, peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and sold it all to Dalou’s Bistro, Coco’s Café, Fat Radish, and Spirit Creek Farm.

William Schlager, the science teacher who co-teaches high tunnel projects with Kochevar, estimated they harvested six pounds of basil weekly from late June until the end of August; 100 pounds of beans; more than 300 pounds of tomatoes; and “more cucumbers than we know what to do with.”

One advantage to having a high tunnel is that when produce gets scarce or is recalled, as cucumbers were recently, the district has plenty. Last winter/spring the kitchen had more than enough spinach – 50 pounds delivered biweekly. That’s because WHS students participated in a two-year UW-Extension spinach trial project that involved testing the effects of light and heat on growing winter spinach inside high tunnels. Trial over, students have resumed charge of their winter high tunnel. On Sept. 15 they planted lettuce, spinach, kale, and an experimental carrot crop.

(Copyright © 2021 APG Media)

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