When children from the Kids Cafe program plant and grow vegetables each summer, they’re not just learning about where food comes from.
They’re also learning about science and nutrition.
And they get to eat great-tasting snacks, said Mary Parrs, a registered dietitian with the Commission on Economic Opportunity in Wilkes-Barre, which runs the program.
Parrs said the children enjoy planting, weeding and harvesting their produce at the city community garden along Wilkes-Barre Boulevard, but they also are learning valuable lessons from their gardening work, something some experts say makes for a fine family activity.
“They not only learn about food but the process for growing it and the nutrients and conditions for growing it, the soil and sun, pollination and sun,” Parrs said. “They’re also learning about science.”
The students also enjoy story time when at the garden, hearing tales about growing food, the farmers market or the importance of nutrition and health.
“We weed; we harvest it; we do plant some; we do a story time down there,” Parrs said. “We bring the food back here and make a snack out of what’s been harvested.”
Among those treats are green-bean fries, cooked zucchini and yellow squash baked and breaded with cheese, salsa or pita pizza.
The children in the Kids Cafe program usually use about six to eight plots to grow corn, tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, yellow squash, basil, cilantro, eggplant, radishes, green and jalapeno peppers and beets.
About 100 pupils from kindergarten through sixth grade at Heights and Dodson elementary schools in Wilkes-Barre who are in the program, geared toward disadvantaged children, are divided into three groups to go down to the garden three days per week during the summer.
Sharon Telesky, master gardener with the Penn State Cooperative Extension’s Luzerne County office, said gardening helps children understand where their food comes from.
But it does so much more. It’s also a good way for parents to get their children outside and teach them it’s OK to get their hands dirty, even if their garden is a small patch, a sunny spot on the deck or just a container.
“The important thing is it has parents and children equally involved,” Telesky said.
The Extension promotes family gardening through several community gardens, including in Wilkes-Barre, that focus on children’s activities, Telesky said.
“We always have children’s displays at RiverFest,” she added. “We always try to have a different display every year.”
One display on worm composting shows how to develop better soil, “once they get over the ew factor.”
“When we actually go into gardens, we have activities with children planting seed,” Telesky said. “Probably the most important thing we try to teach them is that gardening requires patience.”
The other thing gardening teaches children, as well as adults, is gardening is a humbling experience.
“It’s not going to be perfect, not going be blemish-free,” Telesky said. “So they kind of learn a life lesson: Not everything has to be perfect.”
Parrs said parents who want their children to participate in family gardening should plan first. Ask the children what they like to eat, plan what to grow and take the little ones along to buy the plants or seeds. Then the youngsters should be part of the planting, weeding and harvesting.
Ted Kross, director of the Wilkes-Barre City Health Department, said the city community garden program was started in 2006 with a grant. The parcel for the garden, north of the South Street Bridge and next to the Kistler Clinic on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard, was donated by Geisinger Health System. A couple of other gardens were added later.
City Health Educator Paul H. Ginter came up with the idea for the garden.
Parrs said plots are available, but nothing can be planted until after April 27, when topsoil will be delivered and spread.