This month, school gardens throughout the county are in full bloom. One in particular, the Garden of Eatin’ at the North Bay Children’s Center in Novato, is providing food for both table and thought. A USDA-approved curriculum based on this environmental teaching space for preschoolers is now a model for schools in the rest of the state.
Executive director and founder Susan Gilmore at NBCC, a nonprofit early education program with additional sites in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, saw an opportunity to make a difference back in 2003. “I looked around the kitchen and saw cans and boxes of food that would eventually be served to the children and thought, this isn’t right.” She also noticed teachers coming in with bags of fast food for lunch. Surely, she thought, the kids noticed this too. As noted in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “childhood obesity continues to be a leading public health concern that disproportionately affects low-income and minority children … Children who are obese in their preschool years are more likely to be obese in adolescence and adulthood and to develop diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, asthma, and sleep apnea.” Gilmore thought about the many kids from low-income families NBCC served and reasoned that if she could teach them the right way to eat before they developed bad habits, it would help prevent disease later on.
Working with nutritionist Chris Berman, Gilmore applied for financial help to create a garden on the Novato campus. “We came up with the name Garden of Eatin’ at 1 a.m. when we were (completing applications) for a grant from the First Five Marin,” she recalls. “We didn’t expect it to become a national model and the name to stick.” Once they had funding, the pair went online to find ideas. There were none. They brought in expert David Haskell (who’s now garden program director) to build the garden and went to work creating a new curriculum based on nutrition and teaching sustainable practices. Kids learn to work in the garden and harvest the plants, which are later used for preparing meals. Equally important, all fast food is banned from campus. “Part of the plan is to train our teachers to become advocates of local, sustainable eating practices, and coming in with a bag from McDonald’s doesn’t fit our model,” Berman observes.
While NBCC is actively seeking funding to improve its aging facilities and continue these programs, directors are pleased with the curriculum’s first crop of graduates, who are now taking its life lessons with them into kindergarten and beyond. “We know we’re doing the right thing,” says Berman, “when I hear from the parents that our kids are walking through the produce aisle at the market, pointing to the broccoli and asking their mom to get some for dinner.”