Ryan T. Bell 2014-10-17 07:16:14
In a Montana resort town, the Whitefish Lions turned a baseball diamond into a community garden that feeds schoolchildren while teaching them valuable lessons. The baseball field on the corner of Pine Avenue and 7th Street had never seen a game of catch like this. Eighthgrader Laurel Davidson stood in the infield, arms outstretched, sizing up a buttercup squash that hurtled toward her. With the agility of a shortstop, she caught the squash, pivoted and under-arm tossed it to second base. Fellow eighth-grader Ellie DeWan nabbed the pop-fly vegetable and set it in a wheelbarrow laden with freshlypicked produce. The crowd, well, it did not go wild. At least, not for the squash double play. Scattered across the diamond, clusters of middle school students were digging up root vegetables, “eew-ing” at worms and spraying each other with water hoses. Thanks to an innovative project, the Whitefish Lions Farm to School Program, harvesting counted as gym class for these middleschoolers. The story of how a baseball diamond was turned into a vegetable garden brings to mind the movie “Field of Dreams,” but in reverse. Instead of an Iowa farmer ploughing under a cornfield to build a ball field, the Lions rototilled a baseball diamond to plant a garden. “Maybe there are ghosts of old baseball players out there playing at midnight,” says Lion Greg Schaffer, “who knows.” If ghosts do play at night, they’d have a hard time running the bases. Sprinting down the first base line, they high step through a labyrinth of zucchini plants. Rounding second, they hop-scotch over squash. Huffing past third (assuming ghosts breathe), they smell onions. And on the slide into home, they tangle in the tentacles of a cantaloupe patch. The project was born six years ago, when the Whitefish Lions set out to create a legacy project. In 2008, the newly-founded club was just starting to take root in the mountain town. The Lions knew they wanted to create a program to benefit children's health. Greg Schaffer suggested sponsoring a community garden. Perhaps they could donate the produce to a good cause, like a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Growing up, Schaffer worked in his mother’s garden and credited it with the healthy meals she put on the table. “Gardening is in my blood,” Schaffer says. “My mom would make cooked carrots, pickled cucumbers and zucchini bread–the kinds of foods you don’t like as a kid, but come to appreciate as an adult.” At the time, fellow Lion Josh Branstetter was assistant principal at Whitefish Middle School (he’s now principal). He knew that the district’s food services director, Jay Stagg, had been trying to develop a healthy foods initiative for the cafeterias. Maybe the Lions could build a garden to supply the schools with organic produce? The Whitefish Lions didn’t know it then, but farm to school programs were a fast-growing trend in the U.S. According to figures compiled by the National Farm to School Network, some 2,500 school districts use locally grown, organic produce to serve healthy meals in more than 10,000 school cafeterias. These programs, the network explains, create self-sustaining cycles beneficial to small communities: farmers and gardeners sell produce to the schools; cafeterias use organic ingredients to prepare nutritious meals; school kids eat healthier, reducing instances of childhood obesity and diabetes; and everyone learns about agriculture and enjoys physical activity outdoors. The Lions voted in favor of a Farm to School garden. They raised $1,000 selling raffle tickets for grass-fed beef. A car dealership donated a vacant plot of land, and a local farmer brought the equipment to till it under. By the end of that first summer, 20 people had volunteered more than 100 hours to build and plant the garden. As far as volunteerism goes, the Lions discovered that gardening made for fun work. Whatever a person’s specialty, there was something for them to do in the garden: watering, building beds, installing sprinklers. Some Lions even liked weeding. “At the end of an 8-hour business day, working in the garden is good mental relaxation,” says Schaffer. But the greatest satisfaction was delivering the first crop of vegetables to the school district’s kitchen. With some 8,000 pounds of produce arriving at the loading dock, it was no small feat for Stagg to manage the food’s processing. His team of cooks sliced, diced, bagged and froze the vegetables so they would keep throughout the school year. And they created recipes that kids would enjoy: vegetable pizza, zucchini bread, squash soup, salad and baked potato bars. The garden’s third harvest, in the fall of 2012, should have been a time when the Lions could celebrate their legacy project’s having come to fruition. Instead, back-to-back blows threatened to cripple the Farm to School Program. First, an early frost killed the entire cucumber crop, and turned the vines and leaves of the other plants black. Then, the car dealership withdrew its land donation. Business was good, they said, and they needed the land to expand their lot. Nobody could blame them. And so, when the last vegetable was picked, the Farm to School Program was in jeopardy. In “baseballese,” the winter of 2013 was like the bottom of the ninth, the Lions were down and had two outs. With bases loaded, they stepped to the plate for the game’s final at-bat. To win, they needed to find a new location for the garden. Branstetter had a grand slam of an idea: what about converting the abandoned “Rock Pile” baseball field into a garden? The infield was overrun with weeds and the outfield grass was overgrown. That Whitefish had such an eyesore wasn’t because of urban decay. Quite the opposite. The town’s population was on the upswing, thanks to a robust tourism economy fueled by Whitefish’s popular ski resort. The school district had built a snazzy new multi-sport complex on the outskirts of town. The Rock Pile, as locals affectionately called it, languished behind its chain link fence. Branstetter learned that the baseball field sat on school district property. In February 2013, he successfully petitioned the school board to make it the new home of the Whitefish Lions Farm to School Program. Like ballplayers gearing up for a doubleheader, the Lions went to work building a second garden. But this time they benefited from the hard-earned lessons of their previous outing. They knew cucumbers didn’t grow well in Whitefish, but that potatoes, when planted at the right time in the spring, would be ready to harvest at the same time as the zucchini and squash. And thanks to feedback from the school cooks, they planted more fruits (melons, strawberries, apple trees) to add variety to the lunch menu. The community rallied to their cause with even greater donations of time, money and equipment than before. The rental store loaned a rototiller. A fencing contractor dismantled the foul-line fences and reassembled them to enclose the infield garden. An architecture firm redesigned the dugouts into greenhouses. And an organic fertilizer company donated organic nutrients to improve the soil. The Lions also enjoyed an outpouring of volunteer help. Employees at the local fitness club chipped in to fulfill a community service requirement. And the parks and recreation department used the garden to conduct a youth summer gardening club. To make the garden a more effective learning experience, Branstetter devised a new curriculum where gardening became a grade-specific activity. The seventh-graders planted the garden in the spring. Come fall, when those kids became eighth-graders—a coming-of-age moment–they returned to pick the garden. By harvesting the fruits of their labors, the students learned about agriculture, plant biology, the environment and the payoff of hard work. A surprising outcome of the new garden was that it became something of a community center. The previous garden was located on a business strip, but the Rock Pile sat in the heart of a residential community. There’s a church across the road, a retirement home down the street and a daycare around the corner. Members from these various walks of life stroll through the garden. With the foul-line fences taken down, the outfield is now an open space where kids play soccer and fly kites. At the fall 2013 harvest, when the last squash was tossed and washed, the eighth-graders went back to school for lunch period while the Lions put on a donor-appreciation luncheon. A row of banquet tables were set up along the diamond’s backstop and adorned with white tablecloths and fresh-cut flowers from the garden. Donors took turns in a buffet line, the highlight of which was a zucchini sweet crisp made by Jay Stagg, a Farm to School original recipe using produce from the garden. Seated around the table, the Lions told a favorite story from the summer that said a lot about the Farm to School Program’s success. One evening, Lion Gabe Howman stopped by the garden to do some weeding. Pinned to the chain link fence, he found an envelope with $3 and a thank-you. A grandmother had taken her young granddaughter for a walk among the vegetables. The girl had picked a zucchini, which the woman paid for with her donation. The Lions didn’t mind because there was plenty of zucchini to go around. The note was proof that the Whitefish Lions Club had taken root in the community. Thanks to their legacy project, the Lions Farm to School Program, that little girl will grow up eating healthy food at school. And come the seventh and eighth grades, she’ll take her turn planting and harvesting zucchini plants in the Lions garden. Just as well she starts practicing now. Digital LION Lions have a longstanding interest in community gardens and farms. • California Lions work with students on a community garden (June 1976 LION). • Georgia Lions help farmers transition from cotton to grasslands (February 1975). • A North Carolina club creates a “miracle farm” in a single day (October 1950). Also watch an interesting video on the Whitefish Farm to School project at lionmagazine.org.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/Field+of+Greens/1839332/229522/article.html.