South Charlotte

Grant yields growth at Billingsville

Students, parents, school employees, volunteers from Myers Park Presbyterian Church and friends gathered at Billingsville Elementary July 14 to work in raised garden beds and sample healthy food.

The project was supported by numerous local businesses, organizations and individuals contributing time or money and supplies.

Festivities got underway with stretching exercises, followed by potting and planting. The school garden features produce such as basil, oregano, cucumbers, okra, peppers, tomatoes and pumpkins. Parents received take-home pots of vegetables and herbs.

Principal Arlene Harris says thanks to a federal school improvement grant, students have been attending a free summer enrichment program at Billingsville Monday through Thursday for most of July, transportation included.

Gardening and cooking complement the academic instruction, math, reading, science, health and nutrition. The garden will continue as a learning tool throughout the year. It is hands-on and experiential, Harris said. She says the students eat what they grow as snacks sometimes.

The garden is integrated with the curriculum. Shanna Rae, math facilitator and summer school coordinator, says the students each adopted a specific plant or vegetable. They weigh it, measure it and chart its growth.

Rae says as math facilitator, the whole school is her classroom. She works with teachers and students to raise test scores.

Jane McNeary, Mike Stewart and Cynthia Marshall were among the Myers Park Presbyterian group. Marshall, who headed Communities in Schools in Charlotte before her retirement, says the garden is part of a "student engagement strategy."

She describes a child she recently saw cradle a cucumber. Marshall volunteered to start the raised garden back in the spring, with others from church and her garden club.

Dozens of students listened as Harris introduced Kelly Estes, a chef who works at Johnson & Wales. Estes led a culinary demonstration in the Billingsville school cafeteria on using produce.

Next, everyone tasted food Estes helped prepare. On the menu: whole wheat pasta with fresh marinara sauce, topped with colorful cherry tomatoes and roasted squash and zucchini.

The students had already eaten lunch; this was a bonus.

Parents got to take away complimentary bags of produce businesses had donated or supplied the school at a discount.

Items used for the tasting had also been donated because the Billingsville garden wouldn't have yielded enough ingredients right now.

Eventually, leftover produce from what students grow themselves will go to Friendship Trays for meal preparation, according to Katherine Metzo of Friendship Gardens, an initiative of Friendship Trays and Slow Food Charlotte.