THREE OAKS — Gardening is a big deal (and a year-round activity) for River Valley Elementary students.

There are gardens filled with veggies and flowers at both the Three Oaks and Chikaming campuses, and many students take plants home for the summer and bring back samples of their harvest as the next school year is getting under way.

A Harvest Party featuring samples of vegetable soup made using crops from the school gardens took place Sept. 11 (Chikaming for kindergarten through second grade) and Sept. 12 (Three Oaks third through fifth grades) with Volunteer gardener Steve LaGuttata and volunteers from the Rotary Club of Harbor Country making sure everyone had a chance to taste just how delicious the veggies they helped grow could be.

LaGuttata has been helping students get first-hand experience growing their own healthy food since 2011 when they took over several plots (and a greenhouse area) in the Three Oaks Community Garden (raised beds next to the school have since been added to the mix).

“We ask each of the kids (if they’re going to have a garden when they go away for the summer) to save some of the food and bring it back to school and we’ll have a Harvest Party, “ LaGuttata said. “We also make soup out of all the different things we grow in the garden ... it’s all vegetables.”

PE Teacher Amy Coleman said the Harvest Party is part of the school’s effort to promote healthy food and healthy choices.

LaGuttata noted that the younger students are a bit more hesitant to try the soup, although many did at lunch on Sept. 11.

A larger percentage of Three Oaks pupils said yes to the soup on Sept. 12, with quite a few seeking seconds.

“They love soup,” he noted.

Leslie Wood of the Rotary Club, who helped serve soup at Three Oaks on Sept. 12, noted “The soup tastes good and they don’t even know sometimes the vegetables they’re eating.”

Coleman said the outdoor garden at Chikaming was established last spring and is yielding a first harvest of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beets, Brussels sprouts and flowers.

There’s also “something we’re not sure about.”

“We think it might be a watermelon. That will be a fun one to figure out.”

Coleman said the River Valley District’s Summer Camp and Summer School were held at the Chikaming site, so the garden got quite a bit of attention and is flourishing.”

At the long-running Three Oaks Garden, with beds located next to the school and in the nearby Community Garden, Coleman said students have grown “a lot of mint,” tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, spinach (used to make a salad last spring), lettuce, flowers including zinnias. She said LaGuttata helps plant and prep the garden, pull weeds and harvest. He said other members of the Rotary Club also pitched in.

On display at both school during the Harvest Parties were produce students brought in from home gardens (including a whole bunch of tomatoes from Eleanor Smith and Three Oaks Principal Patrick Zuccala’s jalapeno peppers), and Coleman said awards were given out in areas such as largest tomato, biggest pepper, silliest vegetable and greatest variety of harvest.

“The sense of pride in what they grew is just pretty cool, and they get very excited about it,” she said.

On Friday, Sept. 13, Billy Burdett of the Harris Family Farm Foundation paid a visit to the Three Oaks Campus to demonstrate how students can made gazpacho (a cold soup) using onions, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and garlic from the school gardens, home gardens and the Harris Farm near Galien.

He said the Harris Family Farm Foundation is involved in teaching people of all ages in the region about eating healthy and growing their own healthy food through its educational outreach efforts.

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