Partnership is the key to success for the garden program at Rogers Elementary School.

The program is coordinated by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach County Youth Coordinator Caleb Carver and Rogers Elementary School Nurse Stacey Tool-Crawford, with support from Linda Von Holten and Central Iowa Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) volunteers, and other caring people in the local community.

“We are very proud of the many different partnerships that have helped us grow,” Caleb says. “We see partnerships as a real benefit because it makes the program more sustainable, rather than one person doing it all.”

“We are very proud of the many different partnerships that have helped us grow.”

Before the school received a Whole Kids Foundation Garden Grant in 2015, the Rogers students tended nine raised beds at the Marshall County Extension office. The next goal is to eventually migrate the educational component of the program to the school as well.

The educational part of the program follows a research-based gardening curriculum called Growing in the Garden, developed through Iowa State University. They also partner with a dietician who talks with the kids about what to plant and how to cook it.

“The students have made salad and a chicken noodle pasta,” Caleb says. “They make their own dressing and cook everything themselves. Even the kindergarteners participate.”

The partnership with Central Iowa RSVP brings retired and senior volunteers into the Rogers Elementary School garden to provide mentorship and hands-on lessons. Students not only gain helping hands in the garden, they also have a chance to develop relationships with older people in the community.

“It’s such a natural partnership. We’ve got a variety of volunteers, from beginners to semi-experts,” says Central Iowa RSVP Volunteer Coordinator Linda Von Holten. “Our volunteers are generally 55 and older. Some are master gardeners, some just have a love for gardening, and some of them really love to work with kids.”

In addition to connecting with mentors, students also connect with a source of real, homegrown food — an especially important opportunity for this somewhat isolated, urban community.

“Rogers is in an area where we do not have a grocery store that offers many healthy options,” Stacey explains. “Many of our families don’t have vehicles, so they shop at a local convenience store. We have a great opportunity to introduce these families to gardening, so they can hopefully extend what they learn at school into their own yards at home. We hope our partnership with Iowa State University’s 4-H program will also help us engage more teachers who are interested in using their curriculum.”

While many people associate 4-H clubs with rural areas, these clubs also help youth in cities build stronger connections with their communities and the natural world.

“Originally 4-H was developed because Iowa State University wanted to educate farmers on farming practices,” Caleb explains. “But they were not successful in getting farmers to come to meetings, so they aimed to educate the children instead. Today, school gardens are a great way of doing urban 4-H because of the long-term, sustained relationships the kids build with the adults in their communities. Those relationships are beneficial, especially for kids who have parents who work a lot. They need mentors, and we want kids to learn they can contribute to their society.”

A survey of Rogers Elementary students indicates the program is working. After participating in the program, testing shows that 85% of students now know how to choose healthy foods, and there has been a school-wide decrease in obesity.

Students from Rogers Elementary are so proud of their accomplishments, they even exhibit their garden produce at the county fair. That community engagement piece is especially important. The kids are learning to reach out and give back to the same local community of adults who volunteer their time in the gardens.

“We grow more produce than we can possibly use, so the kids go to the food bank to deliver it themselves,” Caleb says. “These kids are giving back to something they have been beneficiaries of—and they really understand that. They see it full circle.”

Find Ag Support in Your Neck of the Woods

Agricultural extension programs provide education and learning opportunities about agriculture — and they’re not just for farmers. They’re also a great resource for school gardens!

These extension offices are found throughout the United States and around the world, in rural and urban areas, and they exist to educate, share and apply scientific research and new knowledge about agricultural practices. Most are affiliated with government agencies or universities.

The Cooperative Extension Network in the United States was first established in 1914, and one part of this program is 4-H, a global network of youth organizations designed to provide youth development and mentoring, including in-school and after-school camps, clubs and activities. Get in touch with your local chapter to find out more about how they can support your school.