Five students from the Kennedy School in Pontiac, Mich., file into the produce section of Better Health Market. Wearing light denim blue aprons over puffy winter jackets, they listen as Mary Vandewiele, market owner, explains what “organic” means and how to choose an apple. Some students listen intently; others glance over Mary’s shoulder, eager to eat lunch.
The students, age 18 to 22, are here at the end of their first growing season. From August through the weekend before Thanksgiving, the students, who have language, social and emotional delays, worked with Slow Food Detroit founder, Melinda Curtis, and their teachers to plant, grow and sell 300 potted heirloom herbs—100 pots each of rosemary, sweet marjoram and purple basil—to benefit their school. The next day, local chef Frank Turner used the students’ herbs to cook Thanksgiving dinner—sprinkling them on top of the turkey, mixing them into the stuffing and garnishing squash soup with basil.
At school, the students learn how to follow directions, work together and care for plants, which, as any gardener knows, requires patience and nurturing. Student Jimmy Sorenson, 22, likes growing the herbs, but his favorite part of the project is coming to the grocery store for a quick food lesson and lunch. Selling the plants, says Patty Lake, helps students such as Jimmy “interact with the community and strangers.”
“When kids are given the responsibility to take care of something, it gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility and really gets them invested,” says Barbara Richardson with the National Gardening Association. That investment leads to improved attendance, better test scores and students who enjoy learning. For their part, Turner and Curtis hope to expand herb gardening across Michigan schools. Their ultimate goal, says Turner, is “to give kids awareness of where their food comes from.”
By Samantha Cleaver, a food writer in Rochester Hills, Mich.