A Garden Grows In The Curriculum

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Kekaha Elementary students are broadening their education – and learning to like vegetables – thanks to three gardening teachers

Kekaha Elementary School first-graders are getting their hands dirty as part of a new gardening curriculum initiated by several ambitious individuals at the West side institution.

More effective than simply learning from a book, the students are actively growing their own food thanks to the voluntary efforts of a handful of people at the school including first grade teachers Jessica Rivera, Suzi Sakai and Nicole Wood.

“The kids love everything about it,” says Rivera. “They’re engaged in a different way than when they’re just writing on paper.”

Each class, comprised of about 20 keiki, is discovering what it takes to grow vegetables such as squash, bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini. They are even propagating food for the hungry, which they will donate to the Kaua’i Independent Food Bank.

“Helping other people in need in a hands-on way is the big idea,” says Sakai.

In fact, the altruistic concept has already caught on. One student even suggested sending extra vegetables to those who are hungry in Africa.

And while the idea was thoughtful, it helped raise the issue of sending fresh produce long distances, bringing about yet another teachable concept.

“I think they grasp the idea that you can’t get vegetables too far,” says Rivera, adding that the program is introducing keiki to sustainability.

“We have 80-90 percent of our food shipped here, which is crazy,” says Rivera, who is in her fourth year teaching at Kekaha Elementary School. “It’s the Garden Island, we can grow anything here. It should be the opposite: 10 percent should be shipped here.”

Not only are the kids discovering how to grow their own food right outside their classrooms, they will receive nutritional information and learn what it takes to eat healthy as well.

“We’re exposing them to foods other than Spam musubi and Cheetos,” says Sakai, who is in her third year of teaching at Kekaha.

Simple cooking classes also are on Rivera’s agenda, including a “pasta feast” as soon as some tomatoes and basil make their way through the dirt. And Sakai says she hopes to prepare pesto and send recipe cards home with her students.

“Hopefully the kids will bug their parents to try it,” she says, adding that it would encourage everyone in the family to eat healthy.

But do kids really enjoy eating their vegetables?

Kekaha Elementary School first-grade teachers (from left) Jessica Rivera, Suzi Sakai and Nicole Wood are making gardening part of the school curriculum

You might be surprised, says Wood.

The Kekaha cafeteria also has been introducing healthier foods into the students’diets by providing nutritious snacks such as fruit and vegetables during recess every Tuesday.

“It’s been very successful,” Wood says. “More and more of my students are interested in trying it.”

“I also think when they grow their own food, they’re way more interested and less scared to try,” adds Rivera.

Though she was the “little mosquito in everybody’s ear,” Rivera humbly denies that the idea to bring gardening to the West side school was solely her effort. Everyone from the principal to the custodians have been instrumental in launching the program.

“They’re wonderful and they never complain,” says Sakai of the custodians.

“They’ve been pushing aside their work to help us,” agrees Rivera.

It’s a benevolent epidemic she hopes will continue to catch on throughout the school and the island.

“I would like to see all the grade levels grow food,” says Wood, a graduate of Waimea High.

The first year Rivera arrived at the school no one was gardening, but this year, all first-graders, some kindergartners and fourth-and fifth-graders have already jumped on the food-to-table bandwagon.

“It seems like it’s really taking off,” she says.

Ultimately the three teachers say they would also like to see gardens flourishing in backyards across the island.

“I hope the kids inspire others and create a domino effect,” says Wood.

“I hope this inspires future generations,” agrees Rivera.

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