Bridging the Disconnect – Schoolkids Learn about Growing Food

Editor’s Note:  The following article was published in the March-April 2017 issue of AgMag magazine.

The Science Academy of South Texas has a secret – a garden where students learn about growing food

Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley used to mean being surrounded by citrus orchards and farmland. Today, residents are surrounded by strip malls, countless restaurants, pawn shops and automotive repair places, many reminiscent of junk yards.

“There’s a big disconnect between food producers and consumers,” said Brad Cowan, Texas A&M AgLife Extension Service‘s County Extension Agent – Agriculture, Hidalgo County.

Today’s urban and semi-rural kids, who’s parents and grandparents grew up on or near farms, are somewhat clueless about where food comes from. This has inspired a steady rise in school gardening projects across the country, with teachers schooling kids in what ag’s about and where food comes from.

One such teacher is Joe Lamas, a biology instructor for the past 26 years at The Science Academy of South Texas in Mercedes, Texas.

Having spent his childhood as a migrant worker, working the fields, Lamas says “there’s practically not any crop in the Valley I haven’t harvested.”

There’s always been a garden in the family, Lamas said. His brother has a big organic garden in La Feria.

Five years ago, Lamas (the instructor) realized he needed a garden space. He didn’t have much land at home. So he got permission from the Academy to create a garden on school grounds.

Although the soil was difficult to work with, he planted some tomatoes and peppers.

“It’s good exercise,” he said.

After he improved the land, the school asked him to get kids involved in his project. So two years ago he did.

Now, with the kids help, Lamas’ garden includes rows of tomatoes, cabbage, onions and a few papaya trees planted around the garden perimeter. He plans to add cantaloupe in a few weeks around the cabbage, which will be done soon.

“None of the kids have been in a field,” Lamas said. And they’ve never picked pests either.

The kids don’t want to kill them, he says, but “sometimes you have to draw the line.”

Last year they produced 300 cabbages. Lamas didn’t take any home. He wants the kids to do that, to experience them themselves.

He tells them “You’ll never experience a tomato until you eat one from the vine!”

“There’s a world of difference between a tomato you buy at HEB, especially in the winter time,” said Lamas “It’s completely different.”

The kids are always amazed at how fast the plants grow, he said.

When they express an interest in the gardening project, Lamas starts by asking them what they know, what they want to learn – questions like “what interests you about plants?”

He tells them he can show them how to raise a few standard crops and a few others. He’ll tell them what’s practical for this area and what’s not. Then they can try anything they’re interested in.

And the kids respond.

One time the kids asked about growing jicama.

Lamas’ brother told him it grows well here but it needs a long growing season. No problem for the Valley.

Lamas says he plays around with different vegetables. He’s grown turnips, something many of the kids had never seen, and carrots, which they all love.

He tells his students what they’re going to plant and how soon the seedlings should appear, weather depending. He”ll make the holes, then adds compost and MiracleGro. Then he covers them up and plants the seeds on top. One kid adds compost, another adds fertilizer, etc.

A view of the school garden that biology teacher Joe Lamas oversees, with student help

“They get to see how things grow,” he said, and he explains how it works.

Lamas plants more vegetables than he needs. He makes them available to the kids and encourages them to have their own planting block.

Talking about the disconnect, Lamas said a few years ago he discovered some of the kids had never seen strawberries. So he raised some and the kids did also.

He’s since introduced them to vegetables like leeks, beets and kohlrabi.

“We’re losing so much diversity,” he said.

“If you go back 50 years, there were over 100 varieties of apples,” he said. Now in stores, there are six or seven. And potatoes? You have go to South America (Peru, Bolivia) where you’ll find thirty different varieties and colors.

“Even with citrus, we have so much variety but we don’t get to see that,” he said.

“Most of the kids (say) the only time they see veggies is when they see them on the side of the road (at vegetable stands),” said Lamas. “And the only time they see broccoli is when they see it in the store.”

Lamas tells them: “there’s not a lot of variety out there (in stores) but there’s a HUGE variety that they themselves can grow as a gardener. But they have to have an interest in it.”

Lamas encourages the kids to keep track of what they grow and how it does. He’s done this himself for years.

Lamas strives to pass his life-long fascination and passion for plants and growing things along to his students. He plans to harvest some of the tomatoes and onions they’re growing and create a delicious salsa for the kids. In April, they’ll make a soup with some of the cabbage and tomatoes. It will give them a sense of the full cycle and open up their perspective of where the food they eat really comes from.

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