Four seventh-grade girls are gathered around a picnic table under a maple tree, watching instructor Kara Gilbert whisk up some vinaigrette with freshly picked oregano and rosemary.
“So what do you think, ladies? Does that look good?” she asks.
A girl named Nhuy samples the dressing, smiling. “It tastes good,” she says and gives a high five to Gilbert.
“What does it taste like?” a classmate asks.
“Food,” Nhuy says.
Nhuy’s answer might seem sarcastic, but it’s exactly the point that Gilbert is trying to make. Here at the Learning Gardens Laboratory in southeast Portland, these students were eating real food. Not some bottled dressing made with xanthan gum, monosodium glutamate, and disodium guanylate, but dressing made from real food on greens they grew themselves.
It’s a lesson that the Oregon State University Extension Service and Portland State University are teaching students at Lane Middle School. Taught by four graduate students in PSU’s School of Education, middle-school students spend 90 minutes a week throughout the school year studying among arugula and cabbage at the 12-acre Learning Gardens across the street from their school.
“We want to help the students understand where their food comes from,” says OSU Extension horticulturist Weston Miller, who manages the site with program assistant Beret Halverson. “We do this by having them get their hands dirty.”
But the education goes beyond gardening. Students have taste-tested pears, brewed Oregon grape tea, and learned about fermentation by making sauerkraut. The instruction fits in with the students’ science curriculum, with lessons in biological diversity, food chains, and the lifecycle of earthworms.
“This is what seventh-graders need,” says Lane science teacher Joanne Fluvog. “You get to them through their senses and help
Steph Rooney, one of the instructors at the garden, leads the students past the leafy chard. “I want you to see things that could go in a salad,” she says, then kneels next to a bed of sorrel. “Taste it.”
“It’s lemony,” says a girl named Thanh. “It tastes good.”
“Let me try some,” says her classmate Selena.
They walk a little farther. “This is kale,” Rooney says.
Selena takes a bite. “It’s good,” she says.
The students walk to a row of lettuce, snip the leaves with scissors, and deliver a bowlful to the picnic table to share with their peers.
A boy named Isiah stabs the greens on his plate with a plastic fork, examines them, then takes a bite. “The salad is awesome,” he concludes.