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New program brings vegetable beds to Beverly elementary schools

It’s Thursday afternoon at Centerville Elementary School and urban farmer Adrienne Wilson gathers a group of eager students around the vegetable garden bed behind the school.

“What are those holes from?” she asks.

“Caterpillars,” shout a few students.

“Yes, caterpillars,” she replies.

Students go back to their weeding exercise and one student spots a daddy long-legs. “Good garden bug or bad garden bug?” she asks.

“Good,” reply her students, explaining that the reason is because the arachnid can eat all the other bugs.

Wilson works as a farmer and educator for Green City Growers, based in Somerville, and visits all five Beverly elementary schools every week with fellow farmer Leilani Mroczkowski.

“We see each of the students every two weeks,” said Mroczkowski.

Lessons include 15 minutes of hands-on planting as well as a 15-minute question-and-answer period, where students can talk and ask questions about what’s happening in their garden, what they see growing, their observations and what the vegetables need to keep growing. These classes always happen outside, behind the school, rain or shine, except in cases of severe weather.

This new pioneering program is part of the “Be Healthy Beverly” initiative, the Greater Beverly YMCA, with a grant funded by the Centers for Disease Control and in partnership with Beverly Hospital, Beverly Public Schools and other community organizations.

With the funding, each of the five Beverly elementary schools received three of their own raised vegetable garden beds, making a total of 15 beds throughout the entire school system.

According to organizers, the program teaches kids how to grow their own vegetable garden, allowing them to learn first-hand (through a science, math and social studies curricula) about healthful eating, nutrition and global agricultural and environmental issues.

Students in third grade, 16 different classes across the district, are learning about plants and gardening as part of their classroom curriculum as well as outside in the raised beds.

Judith Cronin, executive director of Greater Beverly YMCA and lead coach for the effort, said the program focuses on changing the behaviors of the city’s youngest residents and working on healthful lifestyle choices.

New research from Tufts University shows that community-wide interventions can be an effective approach to reducing childhood obesity rates. In addition, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted solely to public health programs, eastern Massachusetts recently reported a 12.4 percent drop in obesity rates among children under age six. Between the years 2004 and 2008, childhood obesity has declined 21.4 percent in eastern Massachusetts.

“The trend has begun to reverse,” said Jack Meany, CEO of the YMCA of the North Shore. “We are truly turning a corner in childhood obesity.”

Meany said programs such as these garden beds will put Beverly on the forefront in getting the community where it wants to be in raising healthy kids.

Community leaders from across the North Shore who have been involved in making this project happen gathered behind Centerville School last Thursday to unveil the program. In addition to Cronin and Meany, remarks were made by Beverly Mayor William Scanlon; Centerville Principal Karla Pressman; Phil Cormier, COO of Beverly Hospital; Nancy Palmer, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees for Addison Gilbert and Beverly hospitals; and Jessie Banhazl, president and founder of Green City Growers.

Dr. Albert Argenziano, interim superintendent of Beverly Public  Schools attended along with School Committee members, teachers, third-graders and other local community members.

Pressman spoke of the lifelong benefits of the garden beds for her students and the community. “Thank you all for bringing this to Beverly,” she said.

Scanlon took a moment to beam at the accomplishment of all the partners in bringing this program, which is the first full-community initiative in the state, to Beverly. “It’s a happy day,” he said.

“This will translate to gardens in their homes,” said Palmer of the huge impact this program is making on students now and will continue to make.

Banhazl said students are learning how to grow food from start to finish. They are learning to plant seedlings, to thin their beds, how to tell if a vegetable is ripe or not, what insects are good and which are bad for the garden, and everything in between.

Students are getting an understanding of what food is, how to make healthful choices and looking at the bigger picture, she said.

Cronin said Green City Growers was chosen to lead the garden bed program, and it was a perfect fit. “I am really proud to be leading this effort,” she said during Thursday’s kick off celebration.

Green City Growers transforms unused space into thriving urban farms, providing clients with immediate access to nutritious food, while revitalizing city landscapes and inspiring self-sufficiency.

This gardening program is a continuation of the Be Healthy Beverly initiative, which last year brought fruit and vegetable bars to all the elementary schools. Last year a healthful eating essay contest was also implemented district wide. Be Health Beverly funded a prize to the winner. There were over 200 entries across all the schools

The staff at Centerville School, with the help of the PTO, is going above and beyond by implementing other programs at the school, such as the popular Taste Test Tuesdays, which started last year.

Every Tuesday a different vegetable or fruit was brought to students to try. “They were thrilled,” said Lorinda Visnick, school volunteer and candidate for Ward 6 School Committee.

Centerville nurse Joyce Prior said she is stocking more healthful snacks at her office as well, which is something also happening district wide. June Kazes, nurse leader for the district, said last year the program was in full force, bringing fresh fruit to all nurses’ stations. PTOs district wide are helping to pay for the snacks, which further enforce healthful habits to students, said Visnick.