By CAROL SOUTH
Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — Magic seems to happen when kids plant, nurture and harvest vegetables themselves.
Platte River Elementary School students are willing to try some homemade salsa, made from ingredients they grew in a hoop house on the school grounds. They are eager to nosh kale salad or bean and squash quesadillas during lunchtime sampling sessions.
A partnership between Grow Benzie, Michigan Land Use Institute and FoodCorps teaches students about local food and how food gets to the table.
The goal is to teach lifelong lessons, help students make healthy food choices and make a dent in the nationwide epidemic of youth obesity.
"It's been exciting because the behavior change is going to come from the kids and that's what we're really seeing," said Deb Query, director of Grow Benzie. "It's fun for the kids; now we have kids running over to try things whereas before you didn't see that."
The project began in the 2011-2012 school year when fifth grade students at Platte River began to study foods. Now those students are sixth graders and the backbone of an enthusiastic team of students who help in the hoop house, as well as with preparing recipes from the bounty.
Since mid-September, two FoodCorps members — like AmeriCorps in that members work with children but around sustainable food issues — have been visiting the school every other Friday to work with students. Vegetables grown in the hoop house include rainbow chard, peas, beans, carrots, garlic and kale. Four or five Grow Benzie volunteers help with the project onsite.
"Students tilled the soil themselves, learned to use all the tools," said Bonnie Smith, a volunteer with Grow Benzie. "They also tended six beds outside the hoop house, which have been seeded with cover crops to enrich the soil."
The collaboration is growing. A grant funded a hoop house kit for Betsie Valley Elementary School, also in Benzie County.
The project's success is boosted by teachers' enthusiasm. Many of them incorporate related lessons into their classrooms. For example, fourth graders studying Native American history and four local tribes read about the legend of the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. The students cooked four different Native American dishes in their classroom and used those ingredients.
"The program is enhanced by teachers' interest, they have been so receptive," Smith said. "Platte River has been exemplary, they have an extremely supportive staff."