Christopher Sulca didn’t know potatoes grew in the ground until the 10-year-old Frederick resident began a seven-week program designed to teach children gardening techniques.
The collaborative community venture led by Seed of Life Nurseries and the Asian American Center of Frederick teaches children how to grow vegetables. The program also imparts life’s lessons, such as healthy eating, conflict resolution and the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
“I also learned about how pollination from bees is important for food” production, Christopher said. “I like being informed.”
Christopher is one of more than 50 students in the program that grows vegetables and teaches them how to prepare the foods they grow on the Hargett Farm off Butterfly Lane in Frederick. Each week, the students take home fresh vegetables they helped grow and share their knowledge with their parents about how to prepare the food.
The children’s day begins at 9 a.m. with exercise, followed by a session on one of several topics that include health education, drug and alcohol abuse prevention, teamwork, healthy eating, basket weaving and logo design. Then they go out to plant and weed on the farm. A makeshift classroom offers reprieve from the sun and is used as a classroom and for lunch.
“The students are super excited to be a part of the program even though cultivating a garden, planting vegetables — doing something with their hands is all new for about 60 percent of them,” said Adrianna Roa, a health program coordinator for the Asian American Center of Frederick. “We also have a session on vitamins and their importance on the body, and which food source produces certain vitamins.”
It is not true that children don’t like vegetables, said Michael Dickson, owner of Seed of Life Nurseries.
“Once they start gardening, and they own the vegetables, it takes on more meaning for them,” Dickson said. “I’ve had some kids who’ve never eaten a cucumber say, ‘Farmer Mike, can we have a couple more cucumbers?’”
Each week, the children pick their own green beans and zucchini and take them home, Dickson said.
Dickson said the program, which is made possible with community and volunteer support, has been so successful that parents want to know if their children can take advantage of a similar project in the fall.
Susan Smith, one of more than 300 volunteers, records the names of each child who shows up daily for the program as a check to know who’s present in case of an emergency, she said.
“So many of the kids and the parents don’t want the program to end,” Smith said, “and parents say many of the kids are trying more vegetables because of the program. This is such a wonderful program that I’m just proud to be a part of.”
With 50 children, conflicts are expected and happen often during the first few weeks of the program, said Timothy Dupree, an AmeriCorps volunteer.
“We make them work it out, shake hands, discuss why it happened and promise never to do it again,” Dupree said. “Once they got to know us more, they listened. They’ve turned around, they learned to work together and now, they are very protective of their farm.”
The seven-week program is funded by the state of Maryland and many community partnerships.
Donald Shell, director of Maryland’s chronic disease program, said his office distributes grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to worthy projects such as the summer program.
“This is a great opportunity to partner with Frederick County’s efforts to get children more aware of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Shell said. “We partner with organizations that already have an existing relationship with families and children, and we agreed with Frederick County that this program offers a great opportunity to accomplish that.”
Shell said his office has worked with the Asian American Center of Frederick on many projects, “and we’re always appreciative of their work.”
Other community benefactors include Grace Community Church, Frederick County Workforce Services, Frederick Community Action Agency, Waterboyz for Jesus, AmeriCorps and Healthiest Maryland.
Dickson said he is constantly knocking on doors in the community seeking support for the program.
“Everybody wants to put their money in gold; I want to put my money into children,” Dickson said. “Sometimes, I’m a farmer, a social worker, a therapist and a guardian.”