Lake Norman & Mooresville

School's wellness mission is a seed in this garden

Something is growing at McKinney Academy in Davidson, and it's more than just the fall crops planted in the school's new student garden.

Nicole Magryta, the school's wellness director, is one of six parent volunteers who started the effort last year with a goal to implement a wellness mission and make it an integral part of the school.

Also a nutritionist, she hopes to use the garden to educate students, parents and the community on how to live a healthy, well-balanced life.

"Especially in this day and age, where we have epidemic proportions of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in children," she said. "Unfortunately, we live in a fast-food world and children are just unhealthy these days."

The Brawley Company Garden Center in Mooresville donated seeds and plants. The center also tilled the garden, prepared the soil for planting and will continue to donate seeds and plants suitable for three growing seasons. The center also helps the Mooresville Intermediate School. If other schools are interested in starting their own gardens, the center will help by donating seeds, plants and preparing a planting area.

"Anything that involves students, we're willing to help out as much as we can," said vice president Adam Brawley. "It lets kids see how food is grown as opposed to going to a grocery store and buying it. And they gain more of an appreciation for food and where it comes from. To see something grow from seed to full-grown plant is amazing. It's a learning experience we're happy to be a small part of."

The garden at McKinney Academy has three raised beds. Two are 4 feet by 14 feet and one is 4 feet by 3 feet. No pesticides will be used, and the crops will vary from season to season. The current crops include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, rainbow Swiss chard, leaf lettuce, green onions and beets.

The garden also will be a teaching tool for each grade level, and will be cared for by the school's 54 students in grades K-5. The school will use more than 60 lesson plans developed by other teachers in the state, as well as the nonprofit Life Lab Science Program, which has supported science and garden-based education through publications, professional development, and innovative programs since 1979.

Lessons will touch on subjects from social studies and math to plant life cycles, weather, erosion and insects.

"Some of the kids probably don't even know what we're planting, and that's part of the education aspect of this," said Magryta. "We will integrate food concepts into the core curriculum, and it gets them outside and gives them a hands-on learning experience. We also hope it fosters an appreciation of how the natural world sustains us. There's so much you can do, but science is a big component of it."

Since being at the school, and as part of the wellness mission, Magryta also has implemented a healthier lunch program, from which she has eliminated fried foods and has fresh fruit or vegetables served with every meal. Crops from the garden also will be integrated into the menu and, depending on the yield, the school may even sell items at the Davidson Farmer's Market.

As part of the school's wellness effort, Magryta also will host parent lectures. Parents will get nutrition and wellness advice, recipes and hear from guest speakers.

"Parents are the ones who buy the food and educate their children, so if they buy into the concept it's a win-win scenario," she said.

Magryta also hopes the garden sets an example for other schools.

"I hope it encourages them to start their own wellness programs and their own school gardens," she said.

"It's going to take a grass-roots effort to come together and make some of these changes that are needed."

And, of course, the students will get to sample the crops raw, as well as in soups, salads and other recipes.

An herb garden will be planted later in the year, and students have requested to plant edamame, snap peas, sweet potatoes and beans for spring crops.

The school's medical specialist, Stacey Haglund, who has a biology degree, also is helping with the project.

"It will show them what it means to eat healthy, how to eat healthy and, hopefully, get them to want to eat healthier," she said.