We live in a paradox, a society of consumption and waste paired with health concerns over rising obesity. The high prevalence of overweight children and unhealthy eaters within our student population highlights the importance of examining factors affecting their food choices. As educators with 27 years of collective experience in elementary education, we’ve witnessed positive changes to policies regarding school lunches and snacks, yet it is our belief that if students become more involved in the actual growing of healthy food while learning organic practices and sustainability, they are more likely to develop lifelong healthy eating habits and values consistent with sustainable living.
Therefore, we designed our Fund for Teachers fellowship to research the sustainable food movement in Italy by exploring organic gardens, specifically the first Zero-Waste town of Capannori, to influence organic gardening projects within the school community and influence students’ healthy food choices.
Italy is the European leader in organic farming, with approximately 45,000 operational organic farms – 2,300 in the Tuscan region alone. The demand for organic produce in Italy has grown significantly since World War II, thus sustainability has become a lifestyle, a culture among Italians countrywide. An essay written for NewFarm.org, states, “Italy is smaller than the state of New Mexico, but it has more land under organic management than does the entire United States.” We spent 14 days last summer researching organic farms in “the Green Heart of Italy” by:
- Exploring Rome’s role in shaping Italy’s Slow Food movement (the city is also the seat of the United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization)
- Interviewing owners of biological farmhouses and organic farms across Tuscany, the agricultural heart of Italy
- Touring an Anaerobic Digestion Plant to learn about the composting process
- Witnessing agriculture enhanced by a well-developed use of fertilizers and a wide net of irrigation systems in the Lombardy region
- Observing in Milan the largest collection program of organics on the planet, and,
- Experiencing the largest science and technology museum in Italy
The knowledge we acquired gave us the confidence and expertise to apply effective and efficient
teaching methods that will promote content-rich instruction. We now have the conviction and self-assurance in our understanding to share with and help other teachers, as well as our students, and to make their learning more meaningful.
Although the impact of our fellowship in the classroom and community is just beginning, it mirrors this year’s school theme, “From Small Beginnings Come Great Things at USE,” inspired by our fellowship and new school-wide garden. T-shirts bearing the slogan were made for all the staff and sold to students and families by the PTA. With information acquired through our meeting with the town council of Capannori during our fellowship, we are expanding our school-wide recycling program, as well as the program that donates unopened milk and food items to non-profit organizations. We are also implementing a school composting program, run by our student council, to facilitate student awareness of how prior waste becomes nutrient rich soil.
Other plans for the academic year involve students tilling and planting phases of our newly constructed organic garden. Each grade level has their own plot to tend. Students researched and identified an organic source from which to purchase different types of seeds for our soil and climate. The effort also involves collaboration with science, math and writing teachers to form lessons that incorporate:
- steps and phases of the gardening process to include research of beneficial insects
- composting and fertilizing the soil
- planting the seeds and tending the garden
- communicating and writing about patience and observations as students wait, watch and wonder, and,
- learning the significance of zero-kilometer and the slow-food movement.
Teachers long to have first-hand knowledge and we know how important it is that our students have it, as well. When students lack personal experiences, teachers need to be prepared to compensate and build connections. We know that with hands-on, direct and personal experiences, learning at any age becomes more evident and meaningful offering higher chances of retaining and applying the information. For teachers to be awarded the chance [through Fund for Teachers] to lend possibilities to all types of diverse learners from disparate backgrounds is an incredible gesture of graciousness and generosity. We had ideas and plans and hopes, and we were able to live those out and return with a renewed sense of passion and purpose ready to share, to offer and to engage with what will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
This month, the science team at Stephens Elementary won a $5,000 grant from the KatyISD Education Foundation for their school garden!
Stacy Slater and Becca White teach at Ursula Stephens Elementary in Katy, TX. You can follow on Twitter progress of the new school garden at @StacylSlater or using hashtag #useitaly.