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KU School of Medicine is showing elementary and middle school children in Kansas City, Kan., the joys and benefits of organic gardens

December 03, 2012

By Cori Ast

Children at Frank Rushton Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., enjoy sweet potato fries made from potatoes they grew in their own organic garden.

"Today we are going to talk about sweet potatoes."

Mark Manning instantly earns a reaction from 40 first graders at Frank Rushton Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan.

"Ewww!" one child screams, but she's drowned out by a chorus of kids shrieking, "Ooooo! Yes! Whoa!"

Manning smiles at the mostly positive reaction and begins the story-their story. The story of the organic teaching gardens at Kansas City Kansas Public Schools.

Planting an idea

The organic teaching gardens began in 1998 as the brainchild of Marcia Pomeroy, now director of the K-12 Initiative at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

Pomeroy built the first garden in 1998-a root vegetable garden for kindergartners at Hawthorne Elementary, now Bertram Caruthers Elementary. The students learned about root vegetables and how they grow and about the environment and sustainable living. The students built a compost pile and the local government came out to show the students how to test soil.

"The kids loved it and we had teachers who also supported it," Pomeroy says of the first garden.

She decided to grow the program. Pomeroy worked with teachers, principals, local gardening groups, and parents to help make the project a reality in 1999. A $13,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation enabled the team to build four gardens at elementary schools.

"There weren't a lot of school gardens at that time," says Manning, who was part of the initial brainstorming team and has been directing the organic teaching gardens program since 1999. "We learned as we went along. We let the students help guide what we were going to be doing with the program."

"Diversity-that's healthy"

Today, the organic teaching gardens are sponsored by the University of Kansas School of Medicine and are an integral part of the science curriculum for students in first, fourth and sixth grades in eight elementary and middle schools in Kansas City, Kan.  The students plant, harvest and learn about the nutrition, history and science behind the plants in their garden when Manning joins their class once each month from September to May.

Manning helps the students plant more than a twenty different vegetables, herbs and flowers three times a year.

Last spring, they planted more than 550 sweet potato plants. This fall, Manning teaches the students about the vegetable they dug up a few weeks ago.

The first-graders at Frank Rushton Elementary are pleased to see their harvest and are surprised about the story of the orange spud.

Manning retells the story of their garden-how the beds were built, showing pictures of them planting seedlings and pulling mature plants. He asks them about the different plants they remember in their garden: lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, radishes, peppers, sunflowers, cucumbers, squash.

"If you have many different plants growing together, all that diversity-that's healthy," he says.

Sprouting Sweet Potatoes, Science and History

There's even diversity among potatoes, Manning explains, "There are more than 4,000 different kinds of potatoes."

Several eyes widen and a couple of kids excitedly utter, "4,000?!"

Manning explains how all the different kinds of potatoes made their way across the globe and then puts up a picture of George Washington Carver, who urged cotton farmers to swap sweet potatoes into some of the fields to preserve nutrients in the soil to grow more and better cotton.

"It's important to teach the children the story of farming and the different ways to farm. George Washington Carver knew the right way to do it," Manning says. According to Manning, Carver is not only a great scientist but also a great role model for the kids.

Born into slavery, Carver was adopted by his owners after the practice was abolished. They encouraged Carver to pursue education.  After graduating high school in Minneapolis, Kan., Carver eventually studied botany at Iowa State Agricultural College, where he later taught as the college's first black faculty member.

"He was a huge influence in how we garden today," says Manning. "Carver was this amazing scientist who wanted to help people feed themselves, so he encouraged farmers to rotate their crops."

Carver championed sweet potatoes, soybeans and peanuts as alternative crops. He also helped develop products from these crops that might increase their demand-products like peanut butter. 

Demanding sweet potatoes

There's plenty of demand today for sweet potatoes, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a $478 million market.

"Did you know sweet potatoes are really good for you?" he asks.

A mixed chorus of "Yes" and "No" sound throughout the room.

Manning begins listing the vitamins in the spuds, including vitamin A, C, iron, and calcium-and tells them why those vitamins are important-good sight, strong immune systems, muscles and bones.

Manning begins to talk about the ways the students can eat the potato, showing pictures of each dish. Sweet potato burritos. Mashed sweet potatoes. Sweet potato cake. Sweet potato cheesecake. Sweet potato salad with pineapple. Baked sweet potatoes with rosemary. Sweet potato fries.  


"Yummy!" one student says.

"That's my favorite," utters another.

"Yes!" shouts one like he's won the lottery, which seems relevant since he's about to win the sweet potato fry lottery. Mary Hernandez, teacher leader at Frank Rushton Elementary, empties a fresh batch of sweet potato fries from the bubbling fryer and she and Manning begin to plate the fries for the students to try.

"They're good," T.J. Mitchell announces.

"They taste like orange," Tyson Rosenmeyer says definitively.

"It tastes like sugar," says a smiling Jennifer Santos.

A sweeter future

One of the goals for the organic teaching gardens is to teach students early about their food and how to make nutritious choices.

"We do a lot of things here to promote healthy eating and activity to try to combat the growing trend of childhood obesity," Hernandez says of Frank Rushton Elementary. Hernandez says the school now hosts programs like open gym nights, walking Wednesdays, and Healthy Kids Club. She says the gardens are a "nice match" for those other programs.

"A lot of kids haven't seen this connection to what they're eating," Hernandez says.

Manning also hopes the students will be life-long gardeners.

"We are trying to inspire them to plant a garden in their own backyard. Maybe not now, but in 10 or 15 years. We want them to remember that it was easy and possible," he says.

It appears the program may have hooked a few students. High school students who helped establish the gardens now volunteer to help prepare the sweet potatoes for frying and to take care of the gardens in the summer when school is not in session.

"This program is so important to young people, the community and teachers," says Pomeroy, who explains that many different people feel ownership of the gardens.

Hernandez believes in the connections the gardens make for teachers and students. More than 1,500 students today benefit from the organic teaching gardens at the Kansas City Kansas Public Schools.

"They planted spinach, they pulled sweet potato vines. They are a part of it," Hernandez says.

Last modified: Jul 26, 2018