This summer a group of elementary-schoolers played a big role in promoting healthy eating habits. The kids helped design and plant a local garden before celebrating their efforts with an all-veggie picnic.

“It’s actually good!” one student exclaimed between bites.

At the Sunset Empire Park & Recreation District’s summer camp, about 20 first- through fifth-grade students joined in designing a new community garden at Seaside Heights Elementary School.

“This will be an enchanting invitation to come in here and discover this growing place,” local Master Gardener Mary Blake said.

Blake and fellow Master Gardener Barb Hassan volunteered to teach a class each Thursday morning during summer camp from June 22 to Aug. 21. The class was a collaboration between the Friends of Clatsop County Community Gardens, the recreation district, the Oregon State University Extension Service’s Master Gardeners and Seaside School District 10.

At the beginning of the session, students used sidewalk chalk to imagine and visualize the space, said Ryan Stanley, the district’s recreation director. The students drew their favorite vegetable or fruit on blacktop near the school.

Blake and Hassan helped them determine the best way to arrange the plants to capitalize on sun and shade. “They really got quite thoughtful about it,” Blake said.

Designed for elementary school children, the garden will also be accessible to students with disabilities.

Blake said she often sees a shift in students’ relationship to food once they “take ownership” of it. They develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of nutritional value and quality.

At the close of the camp season, campers were treated to a cooking demonstration by Jonathan Hoffman, a private chef from Cannon Beach and the owner of Dough Dough Wholesale Bakery.

Hoffman talked to the students about healthy eating and the importance of presentation. “Make food look nice so people get excited to eat it,” he told campers.

Hoffman advocated using local and seasonal products to cut down on the economic and environmental costs of growing and transporting foods out of season.

“It doesn’t have to come from somewhere else,” he said. “My main focus is to try to be as local as possible.”

Using produce plucked from the Sunny Pool Community Garden, he served a vegetarian stir-fry and coleslaw using homemade mayonnaise.

Then it was time for a tasting. At first, students were wary of the predominately veggie snacks.

That tune was quick to change. A student who had previously voiced his hatred of vegetables thoroughly enjoyed his cole slaw and stir-fried vegetables. When asked why he liked the food so much he answered, “Because it tastes good!”

After lunch, students used permanent markers to sign their names on the posts at the garden — a tribute to their effort in starting a trend at the school, Blake said. The project will now be passed on to a Seaside High School senior for his Pacifica Project during the fall and winter.

Posts now line the perimeter of the garden, located on the south side of the campus, and fencing, boxes and soil will be put in next. The goal, Blake said, is to have the garden completed by spring in time for planting. Teachers may then decide to incorporate the garden into their classes. Any food harvested will go to students and their families. The South Clatsop County Food Bank will receive any excess, Blake said.

The recreation district is funding the initial start-up for the school garden, but Blake anticipates they will seek small grants from other local organizations, like the Rotary Club of Seaside and the Kiwanis Club of Seaside.

Blake said she hopes the school’s garden will provide a new opportunity for local children to learn about health and nutrition and benefit from their labor. “This is really important work,” she said.

All of these aspects — fostering community gardens, buying local products and supporting local farmers — contribute to sustainability and economic vitality in the area, Blake said.

“I think we can really make a difference,” she said.

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