Studies suggest that involving children in the gardening process may do more than cultivate a green thumb; it may also cultivate a greater interest in trying new foods. At Discovery Day Academy, in Bonita Springs, founder and head of school Elizabeth Garcia has a vision for that and a whole lot more. The independent school recently implemented an edible schoolyard with the help of parents, students and staff members—the first step in developing the school’s culinary arts program that will involve the children from soil to plate. That means planting the seeds, caring for the plants, harvesting the crops and preparing the food.
“As a 21st century school, our goal is to serve as an example,” noted Garcia. “We want other schools to understand the importance of a program like this. It’s more than simply teaching kids to eat healthy, it is also about the development of creativity.” For example, she says tending to new plants teaches children responsibility and teamwork. It provides an opportunity to bring the 4Cs of 21st century learning—critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication—to life through hands-on learning. Fruit and vegetable gardens let children taste the wonders of fresh food and parents, students and teachers can all enjoy the growing feeling of community that comes from sharing a new adventure.
Garcia recently partnered with Tripp Perkins, owner of Artisan Catering Company, to create a nutritious food program and be the chef for the school. Perkins attended culinary school at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and spent years as a professional chef including positions at the Registry Resort (now Waldorf Astoria) in Naples and Mediterra Beach Club in Bonita Springs. He then took some time off to be a stay-at-home dad and perfect his craft—particularly making foods from scratch. “I taught myself how to make sausage, prosciutto ham and cheese and started baking bread again,” he said. “It helped rekindle my passion for cooking.”
Garcia said that Perkins’ philosophy for cooking fresh, whole foods fit in perfectly with the philosophy of the school. “We know that nutrition is a huge part of brain development and function, therefore, we want to make sure what we are feeding our students is packed with proper nutrients to fuel the brain—enabling students to truly engage in the classroom environment and achieve their potential. Tripp understands and shares our vision. He believes in growing his own foods, buying local and ‘from scratch’ food preparation. He is instrumental in helping us achieve our long-term objectives.”
The garden at the current campus, which has a large variety of herbs, strawberries, kale, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, and fruit trees, acts as a starting point for bigger things to come. This fall, construction will begin on the school’s new 21st century campus, also located in Bonita Springs. The campus has been designed to optimize the school’s approach toward learning. It will be built with the goal of obtaining LEED certification and will include private “learning studios” serving as classrooms, collaborative areas for project work, various learning vignettes and a makers space for innovation. The anticipated opening of the new campus is August 2015.
Phase I of the campus will include a 22,000-square-foot, two-story main building, which will include a modern-day kitchen that doubles as a culinary laboratory. Children will cultivate indoor vertical gardens and an outdoor edible schoolyard, allowing the students to be involved in all phases. “They will grow it, pick it and cook it, but along the way they will learn that culinary is more than just sitting down and eating, it’s an art—one that requires creativity,” said Perkins.
By starting the foundation of the garden now and employing a healthier way of eating (think whole fruits and vegetables; stir fry rice with fresh ginger and garlic; turkey meatloaf with onions, garlic, tomatoes and mushrooms; homemade mac and cheese using whole grain pasta; and vegetable pizza), Garcia hopes to undergo a slow integration in preparation for the big move. “We realize it’s a long process and we must start small, but by building healthy habits, we are building a strong foundation,” she explained.
Perkins is also implementing a composting program and has well-rounded, inventive ways of not wasting food. For example, he saves vegetable pieces to make vegetable stock and uses leftover ingredients from the week to create his Friday pizzas. “We’re not only utilizing the food we have, but it’s more economically efficient,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Schools play a particularly critical role in prevention by providing opportunities for students to learn about and practice healthy eating and physical activity behaviors. “The edible schoolyard is so much more than just offering whole fruits and vegetables,” said Garcia. “We are embracing a culture that includes the science behind food, growth of a garden, incorporating whole foods, the culinary arts and care for the environment through composting and reusing. We are out to make a change.”
Discovery Day Academy engages its students in meaningful learning through The Discovery Method, a project-based learning model developed by Garcia. The Discovery Method focuses on deep learning, authentic experiences and 21st century outcomes. Discovery Day Academy was founded in 2006 as an independent school and has since grown to include three campuses. A 21st century primary school, inclusive of children through 5th grade will open in fall 2015. Future growth through 8th grade is planned. For more information, visit www.DiscoveryDayAcademy.com.