Located next to a ball diamond at the ACGC Junior/Senior High School in Grove City there's a plot of fresh black dirt that's nearly the size of a football field.
But there are no players running on this field chasing balls. Instead, early Wednesday morning there were half-dozen students walking up and down 300-foot long rows, hoes in hand, planting potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers and squash.
This fall the students will eat that produce in their school cafeteria.
The ambitious school garden project is part of the Statewide Health Improvement Program, known as SHIP, which strives to help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives by reducing the burden of chronic disease -- like childhood obesity.
Statewide, $47 million in grants from the Minnesota Department of Health have been distributed over a two-year period for a variety of healthy community initiatives.
Administered through the Meeker-McLeod-Sibley Community Health Services, the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School District is using a $4,000 SHIP grant to focus on comprehensive nutrition through the "healthy eating in schools" intervention program.
As part of their plan, ACGC's food service director will incorporate vegetables produced in the school's new garden in cafeteria lunches, said Pam Bagley, SHIP coordinator for Meeker County.
Depending on how well the garden grows, there should be baked potatoes for a couple meals and vegetables for the lunch line salad bar this fall.
Contact has also been made with area farmers, including a local apple orchard, to provide additional items for "farm to school" meals once a month that will help educate students about the benefits of eating more fresh, local produce and encourage them to try new foods.
The farm-to-school relationship will also support local farmers in the community, said Bagley.
Besides eating produce grown on the school property or at neighborhood farms, professionals will also be brought in to talk to students about why eating fresh fruits and vegetables is important, said Tami Bennett-Tait, coach for ACGC's Youth Energy Summit team, known as YES! The goal is to "improve the health and nutrition at the school," she said.
The project also meshes nicely with the YES team's goal of reducing the carbon footprint. "We'll have the produce here so it doesn't need to be shipped in," said Bennett-Tait.
Along with SHIP and ACGC staff, the school is teaming up with their YES students and ag/FFA students to make the garden happen.
Michelle Hanse, ACGC's ag and FFA instructor, had her students participate in soil testing to decide where the large garden should go and custodians peeled away yards of sod and a large tiller was rented to stir up the soil, which brought up a healthy crop of rocks that had to be picked out.
Some extra nitrogen was added to boost the soil and this week volunteer students and adults went to work to hand plant the garden, which is nearly an acre in size.
Because the produce is needed this fall, the garden will include mostly root crops that keep well, said Bennett-Tait. It wouldn't make sense to plant crops like lettuce that would be ready when school was out. "A lot of it is timing," she said.
"This is the first time I've ever planted anything," said Kayla Morse, a member of the YES team who'll be a senior this fall.
Learning new things is "what it's all about," said Morse as she worked with her 7-year-old brother, Cole, and Tilia Tait, 9, and Tersina Tait, 6, to plant potatoes.
Morse said putting food in the lunch line that was grown in the school garden will send a powerful educational message to students that will carry more weight than posters in the hallway. "We're going to do something different for our school," she said.
"I think it's really cool that we can plant this," said Rachel Pankratz, who'll be an 11th grader this fall and is excited to be part of the new school garden project. "There'll be a ton of stuff coming from it."
Acutely aware that the community's good farmers will be keeping a close eye on the garden, which is clearly visible from state Highway 4, Hansen was adamant that the vegetable rows be kept straight.
She's hoping that when the weeds start to grow, community members will pull into the school parking lot and then pull a few weeds.
The garden is a community project that will provide good food for kids and good exercise for those who help work the ground, she said. "We hope people will pitch in."
The school's ag department helped purchase a few hoes and rakes and the YES team purchased seeds, but Hansen said monetary donations or new or gently used garden tools are still needed for working the garden this year and in future years.
Not only will the garden keep producing good food for students, but Bennett-Tait said the students and the community will get exercise and an education about healthy living. "This is a life-learning lesson here," she said.
For more information about the Statewide Health Improvement Program, SHIP, go to: www.health.state.mn.us/healthreform/ship.
For more information about ACGC's school garden and how to make contributions go to: www.acgc.k12.mn.us.
SHIP and schools
School-age children and youth spend roughly half of their waking hours in school. By creating school systems that continue to support healthy school environments and model healthy behavior, everyone benefits.
Schools are the lifeblood of an informed citizenry and the heart of activity for many Minnesota communities. Children learn some of life's most important lessons in school. That is why schools are considered a vital piece of the SHIP initiative.
Source: Minnesota Department of Health - SHIP