The “Garden Chefs” club at Southwood Middle School in Palmetto Bay isn’t a typical school gardening group, growing flowers and other plants as an extracurricular botanical exercise. It has a broader educational purpose regarding the food we eat and its source.
“Our focus is to utilize the garden as a space to teach students about healthy eating, sustainability, conservation, and to foster a sense of communal responsibility,” said Nicholas Cameron, a teacher of Language Arts & Technology at the school. “Our garden is 100 percent edible, and this year we have grown kale, collard greens, broccoli, green beans, strawberries, asparagus, cucumbers, arugula, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and a variety of herbs.”
Begun in the 2012-13 school year, the Garden Chefs had just two garden beds. This year, with the help of grants, they were able to expand their garden to six planting beds. Co-director of the group with Cameron is Shinja Towsley, a Family and Consumer Science teacher.
“My interest in the ‘Eat Local’ movement and the many health and environmental benefits of growing your own food led to my interest in gardening,” Towsley said. “I had never had a garden and it was a long learning process, but I am very excited about the garden we have at Southwood now.”
Cameron said that the project had been educational for him as well, not only regarding the topic but also in working out the details.
“When I first began, I knew just as much as the kids did when it came to gardening,” Cameron said. “The entire process has been one big learning experience through research, trial and error, and hard work. Now, in our second year, Shinja and I have experienced fewer hiccups, but there’s always more to learn.”
The work of the club has produced a “bumper crop” of other benefits as well. In its first harvest of the year, the Garden Chefs donated three boxes of food to a local food pantry, which fed over 100 families. They also use a lot of the food to make healthy recipes and introduce the students to new culinary experiences.
Helping out the group in more ways than one this year was Fairchild Gardens. Its “Fairchild Challenge” program was a welcome and valued participant.
“The Fairchild Challenge has been an important part to our garden’s success this year,” Towsley said. “They provided us with workshops, grants and support to help build and expand our garden. They were also a source of motivation and gave us specific goals to strive towards.”
The Garden Chefs club is open to all students in grades 6-8 who attend Southwood Middle School. There currently are 20 students participating in the club. They clearly enjoy it.
“I like how Garden Chefs can bring people together to help the community,” said Amanda Gonzalez, among the students in grade 8. “I like to cook with people and grow food,” Anthony Pastore said.
“I have been in the Garden Chefs for two years and I like seeing everyone come together and grow food that is good for you and has no GMO’s,” Sashi Cayard explained.
“I like working outside in the garden with people I enjoy being around and seeing the end product of our hard work in the garden,” Blanche Spiner said.
Giovanni Mejia added, “I like the manual work involved in the garden.”
Priscilla Inirio said, “I joined Garden Chefs because gardening has always fascinated me, but I never was able to actually do it. I’m glad I joined Garden Chefs because I now know that I enjoy gardening very much.”
Lia Presby, in grade 7, said, “I love being able to grow food from a tiny seed with only my hands and the environment around me.”
Carina Landgraf, also in grade 7, added, “I joined Garden Club because my friends recommended it to me. It’s lots of fun because you get to meet new people, go outside, and plant food. I love watching the plants grow and observing all the insects interact with the garden.”
Teachers Cameron and Towsley say they appreciate the help of parent volunteer Saul Mejia, and his company, Baxter Credit Union, who have assisted by donating helping hands, time, and garden supplies. They also thanked the school’s administrative team, principal Magda R. Pereira, and assistant principals Joanie Lobo and Calondria Williams, for their support and enthusiasm throughout the year.
“There are so many things I love about the Garden Chefs,” Cameron said. “I enjoy the outdoors, harvesting the fruits of our labor, and the excitement in the students’ eyes as the garden progresses. But, knowing that what we’re teaching the students today will have a direct impact on their lives is the most rewarding aspect of this club.”
Towsley agrees, and has an added reason for enjoying their work. “I am very concerned about the rate of diabetes and obesity in children. I feel each child that learns the joy of growing and eating food will be one less statistic.”