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Article by Charlie McKee

Photos by Charlie McKee and Elena Mitchel

On a very cold, grey and uncharacteristically foggy January day this week, the garden area at the Sixth Street Elementary School in Silver City looked pretty bleak. This did not dampen the obvious enthusiasm of Elena Mitchel, however, who is the creative spirit behind the children's garden at the school, which the children voted to name "Veggie Rainbow Garden."

The garden and Mitchel's time are being funded by a grant through The Volunteer Center (TVC) of Grant County. Mitchel stated that TVC Executive Director Alicia Edwards's goal is to use the Sixth Street School Garden as a model for other schools and to have similar gardens at each school in the Silver City Consolidated School District.

Mitchel, a FoodCorps Service Member, is clearly dedicated to her mission of teaching the children at Sixth Street a basic understanding of where food comes from and the importance of good nutrition through their participation and interaction in the garden. Her methodology leverages creative and fun children's activities that touch upon all of the disciplines that the children are studying, including math, science and history. Mitchel's goal is to develop the children's understanding of:

    • Where food comes from: from seed to full grown plant to something to eat.
    • How plants function and what their needs are.
    • How to eat healthy, nutritious fruits and vegetables by having the children experience growing their own produce and then consuming it.

Mitchel utilizes songs and movement, as well as math and art, to engage the children, such as having them draw healthy meals on a paper plate; create a snack from each of the "Harvard Healthy Plate" food groups; and estimate and then count all the seeds in a pumpkin.

Each kindergarten through fifth grade class spends 45 minutes per week (weather permitting) in the Veggie Rainbow Garden, with the support of the Sixth Street School's teachers and staff. On bad weather days, the children engage in various nutrition-oriented learning activities indoors. Mitchel and the children have created numerous growing beds in the Veggie Rainbow Garden, each with distinct plants to teach the children a new lesson. For example, a circle of sunflower seedlings will grow into a "sunflower house" in which the children can hide; the "pizza bed" will feature herbs and vegetables used on pizza; and the "herbal spiral bed" will become an entertaining maze of culinary and medicinal herbs. Mitchel says, "I want the kids to have a sensory experience with the plants, combining touch, aroma, and sight."

On Saturday, Jan. 17, and Martin Luther King Day of Service, Jan. 19, Mitchel and a group of volunteers will be holding a Shed Work Party to build a garden shed in the Veggie Rainbow Garden. Lumber for the shed was purchased with a grant from Farm to Table to The Volunteer Center, specifically earmarked for the Sixth Street School Garden Program. Mitchel also emphasizes that the teachers and staff of the Sixth Street Elementary School are very supportive. She reports that they have formed a Garden Committee, comprised of teachers and parents, with a goal of making the garden a sustainable and viable component of the school's ongoing programs.

Mitchel brings a background in permaculture and horticulture from Merritt College in Oakland and experience with two school gardens in Berkley, California, to her Silver City assignment with the FoodCorps. Foodcorps is an independent non-profit organization, partially funded by Americorps. She stated that she is in the process of developing a toolkit that will provide a roadmap for other schools to implement a similar garden program, as well as providing a planting schedule for the Grant County region. Indoor planting of starts for the Veggie Rainbow Garden will begin in February, and outdoor planting will begin in March. Mitchel says, "The kids can't wait to actually eat what is growing. They are so excited!"

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