McCLEARY — Fourth and fifth grade students at the McCleary School gathered around dozens of little cups with an incriminating look. They prodded the wet dirt inside of the cups with their fingers. One wanted to lick the dirt, but the others pushed him away. A few days earlier, they had planted seeds in each cup and labeled them what they would soon grow into — lettuce, radishes, herbs.
“How long does it take to grow?” one student asks.
“I think I see it,” another student declares, squinting.
If there was all this excitement over just a few seeds growing in cups, imagine the enthusiasm if the students had a full-scale vegetable garden growing behind the school, points out teacher Helenann Washburn.
“They see vegetables and fruit in the store, but so many of them don’t have gardens at home so something like this from preschool all the way through to middle school would be so important, so lasting,” Washburn said.
School administrators, teachers, parents and even the students all have their eye on a potential raised garden bed to provide critical life lessons. In East County, which is known for its amazing farms, Principal Dan Casler says there are a surprising number of students who just don’t understand the concepts on how food is grown.
Casler says that 58 percent of the school’s population are on free and reduced lunches. Most statistics and studies show that means that their healthiest meals likely come from school and the youth don’t always have access to vegetables and fruit at home.
School counselor Les Holliday is spearheading the efforts to start a school garden. The school has already identified a spot in back near its football and soccer fields visible to Main Street.
“We marked off a 50 by 100-foot plot at this long rectangle, which goes just to the crest of the hill,” Holliday explains, showing the potential site off. “This dirt is junk. We can’t plant anything here. So, we’re looking at raised beds.”
Casler sees a perfect opportunity to use the garden as an in-school teaching program for its science and math classes. Plus, the school gets about 40 students during its after school program, which it partners with the YMCA of Grays Harbor and 4-H, that could be put to work in the garden.
“It would be great to have a salad bar, it may not be all year but it may be certain times we distribute that food to the kids,” Casler said.
The goal is to not just grow vegetables for the school, but also the community.
“The other part of this which is a big deal to us is that we’re always broke,” Holliday said. “Everyone in public education is broke. And we’re always having our hands out to the community for one thing or another but one of the things we want to do is be able to raise enough vegetables to give to the food bank. We’re a member of this community and we want to give back, too, as much as we can.”
The school had been working with the Grays Harbor WSU Extension Office in Elma for a federal grant. But Holliday said that out of 900 applications, only 90 were funded and McCleary wasn’t picked. They’re hoping to find local benefactors to provide some monetary support. Holliday says he’s also put in requests for lumber to local stores. At a minimum, they’re looking for neighbors that may have extra lumber and soil they can use for the project. At this point, they even need used gardening tools.
They already have a fence around the school’s exterior, which will also keep the deer away — a problem other gardens have faced in the past.
Besides the garden, the school is also working with a volunteer to get a compost program going.
“That way our lunch leftovers will go to work for us to build soil to support this,” Holliday said. “We’re working to attach a whole bunch of stuff to this that springs for opportunities for kids.”