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Published in CenterView on May 13, 2013
Davonte Rankin, 11, fifth grader at Johnson Elementary, examines some kohlrabi in the school’s vegetable garden.
Davonte Rankin, 11, fifth grader at Johnson Elementary, examines some kohlrabi in the school’s vegetable garden.

SON staff tend school garden to grow healthier lifestyles in children

By Matt Westerfield

The vegetable garden lies in the morning sun on the east side of Johnson Elementary School in Jackson – three long, raised beds bursting with greens, stalks and spindles flowering seeds and thread-like leaves.

Fifth-grade students swarm around them, excitedly showing off their crop to visiting adults under the tutelage of their young gardener, Graham Downey.

“Jakobe, can you tell us some of the things we’ve got growing?” Downey asks a nearby student.

“Some red cabbage,” Jakobe Fray points out, “potatoes, corn, cucumbers, lima beans, some onions.”

“What’s special about this garden? What are the three things we planted?”

Fray looks closer at one of the beds and answers, “corn, cucumbers and beans.”

“What do we call that?” Downey asks. “‘The Three Sisters,’ that’s right.”

LaKendal Norwood (l) and Kristin Irving (r)
LaKendal Norwood (l) and Kristin Irving (r)

The Three Sisters, along with the rest of the colorful harvest, is the result of a school year-long experiment in gardening shepherded by the school-based clinic in the School of Nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. It’s an effort to find innovative ways to promote healthy eating and activity.

Downey works for the nonprofit Food Corps, hosted in this state by the Mississippi Roadmap to Healthy Equity. After his commitment ends in August, he’ll go help start up school gardens in other states.

For the past year, Downey has been helping the students at Johnson and Dr. Molly Moore, assistant professor of nursing and Johnson school nurse, cultivate their own fresh veggies.

“My research towards my doctoral capstone inquiry was related to creating a healthier lifestyle for the kids at Johnson via physical activity as well as a healthy diet,” Moore explained while young gardeners encouraged visitors to taste chocolate mint leaves. “One of the chief things I found was that access to healthy foods and knowledge about healthy foods is a barrier with this population.”

That led her to begin exploring the idea of starting a school garden. Before long, she discovered Food Corps was just the resource she needed. Faith Strong, Johnson Elementary principal, supported the idea and introduced Moore to the state director of the program, Willie Nash.

“Miss Strong allowed them to come out, and we were assigned Graham Downey and started last fall. So here we are.”

“We put these beds in August and September,” Downey said. “We filled them up with dirt and got the kids to plant them.”

Dr. Anne Norwood with (l to r) Ka’Mya Williams-Sayles, Kasey Carr, Carmia Jackson, Sharonda Newell-Hinton
Dr. Anne Norwood with (l to r) Ka’Mya Williams-Sayles, Kasey Carr, Carmia Jackson, Sharonda Newell-Hinton

Just the gifted students worked in the garden at first, but now third, fourth and fifth grade classes come out on certain days to help out.

“We tried to start out with as many things as we could, especially with the herbs,” Downey said. “We grow the herbs and vegetables together as companion plants.

“Particular herbs and vegetables grow really well together. The herbs will help the vegetables grow sweeter, stronger or faster, or repel bugs.”

No chemicals are used, so the children can eat right out of the garden.

“The chocolate mint has been very popular. The cabbage was very popular. The kohlrabi was surprisingly popular,” Downey said, referring to a spindly plant in the same family as kale, cabbage and broccoli.

Moore doesn’t have a garden at home. She said she’s learned a lot during the past year. But luckily her father has a green thumb.

“My dad came with me today so that Graham can tell him what I need to do to the garden during the summer,” she said. “We want to build a shed to keep the garden supplies in because we hope to add a bed for each class eventually.

4th graders Rachel Green (l) and Ka’Mya Williams-Sayles (r)
4th graders Rachel Green (l) and Ka’Mya Williams-Sayles (r)

 “I learned that it’s not as difficult as you think. And I’ve also learned that these children are very adventurous and they will try just about anything.”

Dr. Anne Norwood, professor of nursing and director of school-based clinics, said the children are not only being introduced to new vegetables, but they’re learning how to cook healthy meals with them.

“They love it,” Norwood said. “It gets them outside. They’re doing something different. It’s an innovative way of learning.”

Downey said Moore has been instrumental in making the garden happen, pointing out that she weeds, waters and takes care of the garden when the students aren’t around. And her nursing experience is essential to their nutrition lessons.

“Her excitement for the garden and her passion with the kids makes the garden a really wonderful place to be,” he said. “And helps it grow.”