School garden yields more crops than imagined

At Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, they still teach the three Rs: radishes, rhubarb and rutabagas.

The school’s garden has yielded such a bumper crop that it began selling herbs and vegetables to boutique restaurants.

The magnet elementary school at 1200 N. 27th St. adds arts to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEAM) typically associated with such curriculums. For the last three years, the school has taught some of those principles through gardening.

“We started a long time ago with our first-grade garden,” principal Kathleen Decker said. “We had our struggles with planting schedules and such, but when Green Our Planet came out to see us and introduced us to Garden Farms (of Nevada), we were able to craft a greater vision and have support for each of our teachers.”

Green Our Planet is a nonprofit educational and funding platform intended to help people learn about environmental challenges and also to fund green projects that can help solve some of those challenges. Garden Farms of Nevada, a North Las Vegas-based venture at 3910 Fisher Ave., plants personal and school gardens and teaches clients to care for the plants.

The company is owned by Bryan Vellinga, who is also Green Our Planet’s Master Gardener. Walter Bracken was one of the first schools the company helped, and its garden has become a model and showcase for other schools interested in the program.

The first year the school yielded a major crop, it distributed some of the food to students.

“Fifty-five to 60 percent of our students receive free and reduced lunch,” Decker said. “We started by giving out some to students to supplement food they get from Three Square (food bank), but we still had more, so we gave some to The Salvation Army and homeless shelters. We learned not to plant so much rainbow chard.”

This year, the school began recouping some of the costs of the garden by selling produce to Wild, 150 Las Vegas Blvd. South, No. 120; Honey Salt, 1031 S. Rampart Blvd.; and the Cannery 2121 E. Craig Road. Its latest customer is The Market, 611 Fremont St., which opened Oct. 8.

“We need to find a way to everything we do that’s innovative and above and beyond the scope of the standard budget,” Decker said. “We have to build in that sustainability.”

The restaurants have been good about taking what the school can provide while the teachers, students and clients sort out what is needed and what should be grown. In the meantime, Decker said the restaurants have been good about figuring out what to do when she drops off an unexpected load of eggplant.

“We originally thought we were just bringing in herbs, but then we saw how much they had to offer,” said Ellyn Chantos, general manager of The Market. “We have a whole produce unit dedicated to Bracken.”

“We believe that things would be better if the whole community worked together a little bit more,” Decker said. “It would be great if more businesses would consider partnering with an elementary school. We’ve got 222-plus that need support. What we have here is a great example of multiple business partners coming together to help these children be successful.”

A farmer visits the school once a week to help students with their garden and give instruction. UNLV assigns a nutritionist who works with the children to develop recipes with the food they have.

“The emphasis is on healthy living and healthy eating,” Decker said. “We keep finding educational opportunities. Rancho High School is building us an aquaponics lab that will go in our life sciences lab. That will give us the opportunity to grow and harvest tilapia.”

Decker said that far from being a distraction, the gardens are a catalyst for education. Walter Bracken STEAM Academy was named a Blue Ribbon School, a national status bestowed by the U.S. Department of Education for schools achieving superior standards of academic excellence.

“We’ve proven that doing things like this actually enhance education,” Decker said. “Having fun creates engaged learners. Engaged learners learn and they perform.”

Produce from the school is scheduled to be sold at a farmers market from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at The Market.

Contact East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at ataylor@viewnews.com or 702-380-4532.

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