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Classrooms: Amherst educator named teacher champion for district gardening program

  • Left to right, Sam Icklan, Project Bread’s director of chefs in schools; Jennifer Reese, science and garden coordinator for the Amherst-Pelham schools; and Leila Tunnell, garden educator for Amherst public schools, at Fort River Elementary’s school garden. Submitted Photo



Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

AMHERST — A program entering its fourth year that shows Amherst elementary school children how to dig in soil, watch plants grow and get pleasure from being outdoors also has another benefit — it teaches them about where their food comes from.

Though Jennifer Reese, elementary science and garden coordinator, said joys and connections of gardening are still at the heart of the district garden program that began in fall 2016, promoting systemic changes has become a powerful motivator in developing the program with co-creator Leila Tunnell.

“We’ve learned how gardening impacts children’s food choices and intersects with food justice, and understand our opportunities and responsibilities in new ways,” Reese said.

This was illustrated recently when Reese became one of 11 educators across the state to earn a teacher champion award from Project Bread, a nonprofit organization that aims to have all children in the state get healthy meals year-round. The awards come through a partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts

According to Project Bread, one child in nine across the state lives in a food-insecure household, and children who attend school hungry have less focus and face learning challenges in the classroom.

Reese said she appreciates that Project Bread, which has worked with school districts to increase participation in the school breakfast and summer food service programs with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is effecting meaningful change in Massachusetts, and that it is wonderful to have their support.

But she said that the award should also be seen as a celebration of the school garden ecosystem that includes Tunnell, teachers and administrators, community partners, interns, students and the Amherst Education Foundation and Whole Kids Foundation, which have provided grants.

For instance, last year Reese got $5,000 from the Amherst Education Foundation so all second-grade students could have year-round garden-based learning, including universally accessible raised beds at each school, and go on field trips to Brookfield Farm. The curriculum built on lessons individual teachers used in kindergarten and first grade so second graders would have the opportunity to learn about the local ecosystem, food sources, collaboration and problem-solving.

In spring 2018, a garden as outdoor learning space at Wildwood Elementary School was built with assistance from students at the Department of Architecture at the University of Massachusetts.

The recent Project Bread award comes with a $1,000 cash prize that can be used to invest in a nutrition program within the district, as well as a $500 stipend for personal use.

Erin McAleer, president of Project Bread, said in a statement that teachers play an important role in fighting childhood hunger because they are strong advocates for children.

“But they need proper support, resources and partnerships to make a difference for their students, without compromising their primary role as educators,” McAleer said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.