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Rock Creek school garden sows enthusiasm for healthy eating

By: Gloria Young Home & Garden
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The menu at Rock Creek Elementary cafeteria has had a special addition lately ? lettuce from the school garden. Back in production since last fall, the garden got a spring renovation thanks to a partnership with Home Depot in Auburn. Volunteer Ella Rossitto, who was a longtime teacher at Rock Creek, has taken the lead in bringing the garden back to life. Early this year she approached Home Depot assistant manager Adel Suljic about the partnership. ?He said (the store) had been looking for someone close by to partner with. So he put in a grant for $6,000 of materials and free labor,? Rossitto said. ?(Home Depot volunteers) redid the raised beds and built three more beds. They dug trenches and put in a drip (system) to all of the beds. They have renovated an outdoor picnic area, put up shade cloth, cleared out blackberry bushes and repaired the chain link fences.? Employees donated time to do the work. ?We had 12 employees working on it on multiple days,? Suljic said. He singled out two employees who had key roles in the project. ?I would like to give kudos to Phil Butterfield and Allan Donaldson,? he said. ?Phil is a retired contractor and he developed a plan of how to execute (the garden renovation) and did a majority of the work. Allan designed the irrigation system and installed it.? Students and volunteers planted the lettuce crop ? red sail and green romaine ? in May, after the renovation was completed. They also grew radishes. ?The second- and third-graders are our planters for the cafeteria food,? Rossitto said. ?Next year we?ll have more involvement with kindergarten and first grade.? Part of the emphasis on gardening is through First Lady Michelle Obama?s push for school gardens to provide food for kids, she added. The renovation has increased students? interest and excitement about the garden. But that enthusiasm doesn?t always extend to eating what is grown. ?There is a barrier,? Rossitto said. ?Children aren?t used to red lettuce. ? Some people even refused to taste it. I?ve found, as I did with cauliflower and cabbages, if you have the kids wash the food and eat it in the garden, they become more open to try it. We?ve been washing up some sugar snap peas that children are eating for the first time. You have one child who bites into it and then the other children will try it. ? We always have those real brave ones who will try it.? Even though the school year is ending, work in the garden will continue. ?Next year they are going to be serving more vegetables in the school lunches, so I planted a lot to take care of over the summer,? Rossitto said. ?We have tomatoes for August when school starts. We also have quite a bit of butternut squash and are going to start planting more for the cafeteria. There are guidelines that the cafeteria has to serve a certain amount of greens and orange vegetables like carrots. We?re going to be planting according to the guidelines. That?s our goal.? Working on the project is special for Rossitto. ?It?s bunched up with the garden and it is also about kids eating nutritious food,? she said. ?When I taught at school, kids would eat lunch in the classroom with the teacher (occasionally). ? Once a month, we?d have kids come in and I didn?t see many fresh vegetables. ... Everything was wrapped in plastic. And that?s kind of how the lunch program used to be. Now it is starting to change with the awareness. We have a nice salad bar now.? Rossitto has received a lot of support from the community and the school district for the garden, including Principal Suzanne Flint and members of the teaching staff. "We have a lot of wonderful volunteers that work in our garden," Flint said in an email. "Having the Home Depot come to Rock Creek and tackle some huge projects has been amazing, and it has inspired and motivated us to continue our work! ... Master Gardeners and school staff spent many hours working in the garden, and it was wonderful to have such knowledgeable and hard-working members of The Home Depot staff direct us! Rock Creek students have enjoyed planting, harvesting and eating the fruit and vegetables in the garden, and we are looking forward to growing and serving even more! We honestly could not have accomplished this much without the help of The Home Depot!" Diane Brooks, food services manager for Auburn Union, has been very supportive, too. Some of the funding to purchase seeds and plants came through food services, Rossitto said. ?(Brooks) is enthusiastic and supportive of what I?m doing,? Rossitto said. ?She is so excited. It?s the perfect volunteer job to get to work with enthusiastic kids.? Lysa Sassman, second-grade teacher at Rock Creek, said her students have loved spending time in the garden. ?They have benefited in many ways,? she said in an email. ?They know how things grow and have eaten new foods they have grown themselves. Many would not have had this opportunity otherwise. We are looking forward to continuing this great program next year!? The master gardeners are also lending a hand and will assist Rossitto through the summer. ?We all keep an eye on (the garden),? she said. When students return for the fall, they?ll get to plant carrots, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, radishes and more lettuce. ?We?ll be filling up the beds in August and September,? Rossitto said. According to Suljic, Home Depot gets a variety of donation requests weekly. ?When Ella first contacted me, I thought it was a worthwhile project,? he said. ?Since a lot of our associates? children go to that school, we decided to partner with our divisional representatives to see if we could get the grant. We went out there and talked to Principal Flint about what (the school would) like to do. (We added up) everything we would need to execute it and submitted it to our corporate office and it came to $6,000. ?We have a very special relationship with Rock Creek Elementary. The kindergartners, first and second-graders come to our store and we give them tours. They represent a large number of participants in our monthly children?s workshops. So the school is very special to us.? Suljic said that Home Depot is currently working on another project to build a wheel chair ramp for a disabled veteran in Auburn and welcomes requests from 501(c)(3) organizations in the area.