Sunday, December 17, 2017
Education

Pine Grove Elementary harvests learning and vegetables

BROOKSVILLE

Stroll down the walkways at Pine Grove Elementary School and there is a good possibility someone may offer to pluck a tiny tomato off a vine or snap off a broccoli floret to sample.

Vegetables are everywhere.

"We walk by and snack as we walk along," said fourth-grade teacher Michelle Haenel.

The gardens are nurtured by the school's Science Club, mostly third- to fifth-graders, who are advised by science resource teacher Doug Poteet. The gardens are heavily maintained by hyperinvolved parent — his term — Dwayne Ross and supported by the University of Florida urban horticulture service.

"We provide the (volunteer) master gardeners," said extension agent Jim Moll. "The volunteers are so knowledgeable," Ross said, "it eases the task of teaching the students."

The Science Club has been meeting for several years, Ross said, but has been expanding.

"This year is when the gardening has really taken off," he said.

Walk around the campus and you see cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, beets, radishes, carrots, okra, brussels sprouts, pole beans, rattlesnake beans, celery and dandelions — "great for water filtration," Ross said.

Ross and Poteet do the day-to-day work. Students only have the time to do so much.

"This would not work, except for dedicated teachers and hyperinvolved volunteers," Moll said.

Their goal is to try to get gardening programs on the scale of Pine Grove's into other schools.

"So few kids have any idea of where their food comes from," Moll said.

Ross has high ambitions for the gardens.

"We want to be able to provide a free salad bar to students here," he said.

The gardens do not stop with vegetables. The Science Club students also raise rabbits and fish, with the possibility of chickens in the future.

"We need to teach today's children how to survive," Ross said. "Farming is a lost industry."

The aquaponics system produces tilapia.

"We have about 700 fish," Ross said. "In the spring, there will be a cookout. Last year, I did seven different ways of cooking it."

Parents and teachers have been absorbing the program's costs. Community businesses have stepped in, too, as well as the Auroveda Foundation, founded by local doctors Maria Scunziano-Singh and Pariksith Singh to raise awareness of the powers of nature.

Thanks to JG Ranch's George and Joan Casey, the school also has a strawberry patch. The ranch provided 600 plants and the setups for them.

The Science Club members are enthusiastic about their food production.

"I love science. I think it's fun and good for the Earth," said fourth-grader Celeste Shults, 10.

Celeste's classmate, Alexis Cento, 10, has some favorite vegetables.

"I would probably have to say the carrots and the broccoli. We know how to treat the plants and how to water," Alexis said. "We're learning math. We're learning all the formulas for the growth beds."

Said fourth-grader Jayden Coffey, 9: "I like the fish, the kohlrabi and broccoli. I like the planting and science and water."

Rayne Coffey, 9, (no relation to Jayden) said his favorite reasons for being in the Science Club are the bunnies and the tilapia, "because I like to work. I love to plant, and I love to make the Earth a better planet."

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