Partnership grows educational opportunities in Lakewood Ranch schools.
Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School kindergartner Emory Sanders wasn’t afraid to get dirty.
In fact, after fifth graders Pedro Perez and Kaden Rusek poured dirt into the EarthBox container garden they were planting, Sanders shoved her hands deep into the soil and smiled.
“This dirt feels weird,” she said. “It feels like pillows — really soft pillows.”
The group mixed in dolomite, a mineral soil supplement, before taking the next steps toward planting their tomato plants.
McNeal Elementary became the first of six Lakewood Ranch area schools in November to accept new EarthBox container gardening systems through the One Garden at a Time project.
It provided 75 total EarthBoxes for educational purposes to area schools. Robert E. Willis, Bradenton River, Myakka and Freedom elementary all received their boxes before winter break.
At McNeal, children in two fifth grade classes and one kindergarten class assembled the school’s new EarthBoxes Nov. 22.
“The important thing is the students get a hands-on experience in understanding how plants grow and where our food comes from,” said kindergarten teacher Mary Sue Bauer, who oversees McNeal’s school garden. “A long time ago, many of us had gardens in our backyard, and I think today, often, they aren’t exposed to gardens and agriculture and how important they are in our world.”
She said the EarthBoxes are easily movable, so they can be used in a variety of learning formats, whether incorporated into the school garden or outside an individual teacher’s classroom.
The school district has provided curriculum for teachers, so they can use the EarthBoxes to teach math, science, agriculture and nutrition.
Monaca Onstad, LWR Communities’ director of community relations, said the One Garden at a Time project evolved as a way to promote healthy eating for children. It is the result of a partnership between the Junior League of Manatee County, LWR Community
Services and the School District of Manatee County.
She said Junior League of Manatee County received a $3,000 grant from the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund for that purpose and approached LWR Communities about finding a project that would result in a larger impact.
Onstad said LWR Community Services, which runs programs in the Lakewood Ranch Stewardship District, had received a $3,500 grant from Earth Fare to promote healthy eating after it opened in January 2018 in Lakewood Ranch.
“We came together,” Onstad said. “We’ve been looking into helping schools get gardens for a long time. It can be challenging for schools to have a garden they have to [take care of] over summer. We contacted EarthBox.”
Through the grants, Junior League and LWR Community Services made 75 EarthBoxes available to the public at discounted rates during the Lakewood Ranch Farmer’s Market on Nov. 17. For each purchased, EarthBox donated a box to the schools.
Junior League’s Bobbi Vitale said leftover grant money will go toward gift cards to EarthBox. The schools will be able to use those cards to pay for new plants, soil or other gardening needs.
“To see [the kids] get their hands dirty is great,” Vitale said. “They’re learning how to grow it and put healthy food in their bodies.”
EarthBox office manager Neilie Boehle said her grandfather, Founder Blake Whisenant, loved giving back to the community and to children, in particular.
“He always felt it was very important to teach kids young how to get into farming, self-sufficiency,” she said of why EarthBox wanted to participate.
Onstad said all the EarthBoxes will be delivered before the school district’s winter break. Other schools receiving EarthBoxes are Robert E. Willis, Braden River, Freedom and Myakka elementary schools.