Brad Jones is an accidental gardener who hopes to change the world beginning with the fertile earth of an edible schoolyard. A parent, professional firefighter and founder of the edible garden at Orlando Junior Academy — a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Seventh-day Adventist school — Jones has been digging in for years with hands and heart to build the garden program that contributes to the school’s all-vegetarian lunch menu and has evolved into cross-curriculum study. It doesn’t matter that his daughter, Jordan, graduated from the school in 2008 or that he knew little about planting and harvesting before he got started. Today, he’s hooked on helping children expand their edible universe and apply gardening to many facets of their lives.

“I see a real need for change in the way that kids relate to food,” says Jones, who began about eight years ago to help build the OJA vegetable garden on a small plot on the school’s kickball field. “Being a responsible steward of the earth is what we want to be doing with these kids — those kinds of lessons are life lessons.”

This past spring, the OJA garden won a statewide competition for the best school garden sponsored by the University of Florida, Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival and the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs. And this year the school’s garden curriculum will be healthier than ever, says Jones, as he and a school task force attended an enlightening three-day summer workshop in June at the Edible Schoolyard (ESY) in Berkeley, California. A program developed by the Chez Panisse Foundation and chef-author Alice Waters, ESY is a 1-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom for urban public school students to grow, harvest and prepare seasonal produce. The OJA team, whose trip was sponsored by Florida Hospital, learned a lot about integrating food-systems concepts into a core curriculum.

K Restaurant chef-owner Kevin Fonzo, another task force member who has contributed his culinary talents each month to OJA’s gardening program, returned from the workshop with a bounty of teaching ideas. “It was amazing to me how they tied in the math, science and social studies. The humanities teacher was talking about barter and trade and how cardamom got from India to Europe. They made hummus and their own pita bread with flour they milled from the wheat they grew in their garden. Now I know how to tackle a class with the kids and make it interesting for them.” The workshop so inspired Fonzo that he plans to work with OJA students once a week this year.

Jones, with assistance from edible Orlando staffer and raw-food chef Sarah Cahill, is eager to continue to build OJA’s edible garden and integrate new food concepts into the curriculum. “We have more space this year, and we are better gardeners. A lot of kids really are not exposed to good choices, and it’s nice to work with a group of people interested in making those connections in innovative ways.”

Orange County Students Grow Healthful Eats

Innovation is also on the menu at Meadow Woods Elementary School in Orlando, where fifth-grade students are thinking beyond the goodies in their lunch boxes. They’re munching on celery stalks, nibbling lettuce leaves and enjoying lots of other produce they plant and harvest themselves.

Along with the school’s third- and fourth-grade students, the children grow their own fruits and vegetables in eight raised-bed gardens on school property. The University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Orange County extension gardening program, funded in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Family Nutrition Program, now serves five Orange County schools, including Meadow Woods, where more than half the student population receives free or reduced-cost school lunches. Last year, the garden-based nutrition program reached 264 students in five schools that also included Hungerford, Hidden Oaks, Winegard and Maxey elementary schools. In all, the children tended 27 raised-bed gardens at the five schools, says Annie Peterson, Family Nutrition Program instructor.  Each semester, the 14-lesson program touches on all aspects of raising fresh food and harvesting it for the table, from planting of seedlings and fertilizing with compost to harvesting the crop and preparing nutritious, sanitary foods.

“Many of [the students]don’t realize how food grows and where it comes from,” says Peterson, who hopes to expand the program to other schools. “It really is a good learning experience for them, and just taking ownership of the garden is something they’re really proud of.”

Tim Hurley, gardener and IFAS program assistant, says the children often turn up their noses when they get their first whiff of the mushroom compost used in their organic gardens. But, he says, “once a kid plants a plant, they’re going to taste it, and they usually want to do more. We show them how to germinate seeds, how to transplant, how sunflowers attract pollinators to the garden, and we do a lesson on good bugs and bad bugs. Every day, we have to water and look for signs of insects. They like to watch the plants grow, and they’re amazed that a tomato can double its size over a [school]break.”

As the school year progresses, the children’s vegetable repertoire expands rapidly to include peppers, squash, eggplants, greens, cucumbers and pole beans, Hurley says. And students become excited about tasting foods that are new to them, adds nutrition program assistant Deborah Freeman.

“Their knowledge of the variety of vegetables is limited, and they are amazed at the options they can choose from,” Freeman says. “They’ll try all of it, even the ones who are hesitant at first. It’s so much fun — everybody has a job. Those who don’t harvest can wash, cut or dry the vegetables. It’s learning that there’s more to food than what they may have been taught and that they can make choices. If they’ve had it in their salad, they might consider having it in their school lunch. I like to think that this can have long-term results — it is becoming a trend, and it is growing.”

Local Chefs Join In

It was First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative that spurred Chef Jamie McFadden in August 2010 to don his gardening gloves at the non-profit Morning Star School for special-needs children.

“The kids had already started a garden, and it was amazing to see how excited they were to have us come in and spend time with them,” says McFadden, owner of Cuisiniers Catered Cuisine of Winter Park. Together with teacher Tracy Potter of Altamonte Springs, who has taken time off from teaching to spend time raising her young daughter, McFadden developed a lesson plan with fresh-fruit-and-vegetable-based activities that the children enjoy. Last November, the class of about 22 children, ages 8 to 16, harvested squash, tomatoes and zucchini and dined on ratatouille — a dish they knew from the Disney film of the same name.

“The kids had seen the movie, and they tasted the vegetables before [cooking]and after,” Potter says. Another harvest yielded an abundance of green beans “and some of the kids came up with the idea of giving some to a soup kitchen. They really have a connection to the garden and eating, and they’re really enthusiastic about it. It gives them a view of their community and the community outside of where they live. It teaches them to think globally.”

Green Thumbs Up for New Smyrna Beach Middle School

School-garden experiments are groundbreaking at New Smyrna Beach Middle School as part of the Greenovation initiative supported by parents, community members, school leaders and local businesses. A founding member of the Greenovation partnership, PTSA secretary Valeh Levy, says volunteers and partners, including the City of Edgewater, have helped refurbish a campus greenhouse and donated custom-built garden boxes, a tumbling composter, a red worm farm, rain barrels and an aquaponics unit. Aquaponics is a sort-of hybrid of hydroponics and aquaculture — fish waste from the 400-gallon tank feeds the plants housed in PVC piping — a small version of the similar hydroponics facility visitors can see at The Land greenhouses at Epcot in Walt Disney World Resort. Each semester, more than 120 middle-school students will maintain the system, monitor plant growth and harvest produce, says agriscience teacher William Smith. They also will work on an Urban Oasis Garden project, growing ornamentals and seasonal vegetables.

“In the beginning, [students]are kind of apprehensive about gardening because a lot of them live in urban areas — a concrete environment,” says Smith, who guided the students last year as they grew blueberries and vegetables in container gardens and ground plots with micro-sprinklers. “When they see the plants coming up and they see the fruits of their labor, it’s motivating for them.”

The entire Greenovation project puts environmental education front and center in the school and community population, Levy says. “It will enrich their lives, it’s fun and hands-on . . . and it gives them tools to be positive stewards of the Earth.”