Across the state, classrooms are quiet and hallways have emptied as another school year comes to a close. But at six Randolph County elementary schools, summer break is a time of growth and maturity – for the schools’ newly planted fruit-bearing trees and bushes, that is.
West Virginia University Extension Service faculty and staff in Randolph County partnered with students at Beverly, Coalton, North, George Ward, Jennings Randolph and Third Ward elementary schools to install edible landscaping features around the schools’ playgrounds, providing natural beauty, learning opportunities and, eventually, fresh food for the students.
The seed was planted for this project when Tracey Valach, former WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program youth health educator in Randolph County, learned that one of the schools was planning to plant new landscaping around its playground to add shade and incorporate more natural elements.
Spotting an opportunity for WVU Extension Service to get involved, she suggested the school opt for fruit-bearing plants, which provide those same amenities as other trees and bushes but also provide fresh, nutritious food for years to come.
“The more we can encourage kids to be outside and learning at the same time, the better. Studies show that if children grow the food, they’re more likely to try it, enjoy it and have a personal connection to it,” Valach said. “It’s not just about having more fruit on the school salad bar but giving them a connection to that fruit. And, the edible landscaping is a win-win for both the nutritional side and the educational side.”
The project quickly grew to include six of the county’s elementary schools. Valach worked with Hannah Fincham and Jody Carpenter, Randolph County’s WVU Extension Service agents, to select the types of fruit-bearing plants that would be planted to get the project off the ground. Through crowdfunding and community support, the team purchased blueberry bushes and a variety of apple trees for each school.
In the final weeks of the school year, students at each school ventured outside with Valach, Fincham and Carpenter to learn about picking the best location for the plants, proper spacing for each variety and how to successfully transplant trees and bushes. As fun as digging in the dirt can be, the real fun for the students begins once the plants are mature enough to bear fruit.
“Planting fruit trees is fun and a good way to learn,” said Reese, a fourth-grader at Beverly Elementary. “Every day when we come outside for recess and gym, we can see the plants growing more and more.”
Each school has creative plans for the blueberries, which will come on during the summer break. However, the apples, which will eventually be ready for harvest during the school year, will be picked by the students and used in the cafeteria as well as the classroom.
“We will harvest the fruit at different stages with the kids depending on what activities we’ll be doing with them. This project doesn’t just teach them about nutrition, but math and science, too,” Valach added. “Some of the apples will go to the salad bar or be used in meals from the cafeteria, but we’ll also do hands-on cooking classes and taste testing with the students.”
The students involved in the project enjoyed planting and learning about the trees and bushes, but some are more excited about what’s to come.
Chiron, another fourth-grader at Beverly Elementary, said he’s most looking forward to eating what they grow. He added, “We’re doing this so we can have more fresh fruit for our salad bar and be healthy.”
The edible landscaping project is a part of the WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program and the Grow This! West Virginia program. This work is supported by USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–SNAP.