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Suisun Valley K-8 School teacher Heather Merodio cut pieces of a broccoli flower, handing the knubby, green segments to her fifth-grade agri-science students, some 20 in all, seated on the edges of a rectangular wooden grow box inside the campus’ garden in rural Fairfield.
“It tastes raw,” student Myah Rodriguez told a visitor to the Lambert Road school on Friday.
“It tastes earthy,” classmate Jade Adams chimed in, with another classmate, Emmalyn Pearson, seated next to her, adding, “I think it’s fresh.”
Speaking amid the school’s quarter-acre garden, the brief educational exercise was an example of the school’s longtime custom, practice and educators’ belief in teaching the state’s Next Generation Science Standards and STEM subjects as they plant, nurture, harvest and eat the food they grow.
Merodio then cut and handed out delicate yellow broccoli flowers and stems for tasting, and student Edwin Candelario gave it a quick and frank review: “It doesn’t taste like anything.”
Seated next to him, L.J. Walters asserted, “I don’t know what it tastes like.”
Eating broccoli stalks yielded more definite reactions from the two boys, who said, respectively, “It’s kind of sweet” and “Kind of watery.”
By all accounts, the teachers and the school’s roughly 500 students take nutrition, healthy food choices and mindful cooking to heart. As they learn and enjoy some physical exercise that farming requires, they also get a little soil on their arms and legs, too, and plenty of fresh air.
“It’s project-based learning,” Merodio said before the fifth-graders walked out to the garden, filled with raised beds hemmed in by wood, a hallmark, along with soil improvement, of the “French intensive method” of gardening championed more than 50 years ago by the late Alan Chadwick at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In a text message to The Reporter, Fairfield-Suisun Unified Superintendent Kris Corey said the school’s garden was more “like a farm,” calling the school’s agri-science program “an exceptional example of a thematic K-8 school” that aligns with the district’s Career Technical Education pathways, with the students learning lifelong skills “that will shape their future.”
The school’s agri-science program has gained a reputation for innovative learning, attracting other educators to visit the campus so they can replicate it at their school.
Last week it attracted Rep. John Garamendi, D-Solano, who was raised on a farm in Mokelumne Hill and lives in Walnut Grove. He toured the campus, its newly built Innovation Lab (where cooking classes and more take place and where Merodio teaches) and had a chance to taste the parsley pesto students made in his honor.
Earlier, Principal Jas Bains Wright took a visitor on a brief tour of the garden, pointing to several boxes filled with lush cardoon artichokes, Brussels sprouts, garlic, cherry tomatoes, yellow and red onions, kale, asparagus and peppers.
The 26-year educator, 11 of them at Suisun Valley K-8, said she grew up in Yuba City “driving a tractor,” helping her father raise peaches, prunes and walnuts, and understands farming.
“My job was to grow the farm,” she said of her hiring to lead the school, pointing, as she walked, to a chicken coop, pomegranate, apricot, persimmon, fig and lemon trees, 2,000-gallon recycled water storage tanks and table grape vines, now leafless as winter takes hold.
Asked what students learn, she responded: “I think they appreciate where their food comes from.” She added that the students also learn to care for animals, such as the chickens, and learn to “care and nurture a plant from a seed, watch it grow, harvest it, prepare it and eat it.”
Merodio, she said, “teaches the value of eating organic” food.
The lessons are grade-appropriate, Bains Wright noted, meaning, say, the kindergarteners may want to grow carrots and learn all about them while another class may want to grow radishes.
She and Merodio agreed that the students also learn about loss, that is, when an insect or vermin ravage a particular plant, but, for example, a white fly infestation can also be a lesson on how to deal with natural adversity.
Many of the students have started gardens at their own homes as a result of their school lessons and introduced their parents to organic, said Bains Wright. She added that, “as a school of choice,” some 60 percent of the students come from outside the attendance area.
“It’s also good for their mental health and physical well-being,” Merodio said of the school’s gardening activities. “They connect with nature and learn to work collaboratively.”
The outdoor lessons eventually segue into indoor ones when students reflect and recall their experiences and what they learned, she added.
Bains Wright, Merodio and other teachers believe a coordinated effort between staff and students can lead to higher levels of activity, healthier food choices, and greater student success during these challenging, pandemic times.
In a brochure about the school’s agri-science program, educators wrote, “Without question, agri-science is one of the core programs at Suisun Valley and will be sustained because of its positive impact on students.”
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