School gardens are a centuries-old tradition seeing a resurgence in popularity. They are popping up at educational facilities all over the country in response to local food movements, school nutrition initiatives and public health concerns. On-site gardens are most commonly implemented in order to improve the diets and nutritional education of students, but a preschool in Benton Park West has transformed its backyard plot into a tool for change throughout the community.
The garden at SouthSide Early Childhood Center consists of raised beds planted with fruits, vegetables and flowers; a sunflower house; and a wide-branching apple tree. The green space is a precious commodity to the school’s 65 students. “Not all the kids at our school have yards to play in, are exposed to nature and the outdoors,” says Anne Kessen Lowell, director of the center. But the children spend plenty of time in the school garden, helping plant seeds, tend to plants and pick the food when it’s ripe.
“They take pride in growing things,” says teacher Jenny Mack. And that pride translates into a healthier approach to food. “I’ve noticed they’re more likely to try a vegetable they’ve raised themselves,” says Mack.
Every day at school, the children eat healthy, balanced breakfasts and lunches thanks to SouthSide’s chef, Fawn Montjoy. She cooks from-scratch breakfasts and lunches heavy on fresh vegetables and fruits, lean meats, and whole grains. The day we visited Montjoy’s school kitchen, fresh lettuce, carrots, potatoes, strawberries and blueberries filled the prep table. Trays of golden-brown baked chicken breasts came hot from the ovens. Montjoy serves whole-grain breads and sweets low in sugar and high in nutrients, often with fruits. She cooks the same way at SouthSide as she did in her previous position at a private school in St. Louis County. “Every child, no matter their circumstances, deserves to eat well,” she says. “My mother always said cooking good food is a way of showing respect.”
Teachers encourage the children to taste test. They learn to describe flavor, texture, colors and shapes. After just one gardening season, teachers found the children could clearly distinguish fresh foods from the garden from processed foods. Pretesting showed the average number of correct responses increased by more than 70 percent.
But at SouthSide, mealtime is about much more than a healthy diet; the social aspect of eating is something the school deems important to teach its children as well. Meals are served family-style, in the classroom, with teachers and students sitting down at the table together, an experience the children might not have at home.
“Our families face challenges,” says Lowell. “There might not always be enough food for everyone, so dinner is more of a snack on the go. Some parents work split shifts, so not everyone is home at the same time. Lunch at the school helps teach healthier eating habits and builds social skills.”
Montjoy notes how children change as they learn to eat family-style. “I’ve seen some children get anxious when the bowls start to empty, but over time they learn there’s enough food for everyone.”
“They learn to share by passing the bowls,” says Lowell. “The ladles are sized to teach what a portion looks like. They put some of every food on their plate, and we encourage them to try new things. They pour their own milk, from small pitchers. It doesn’t always work, but they learn.”
Parents learn from the garden as well. In spring, Gateway Greening came to a parent meeting with information about the school garden and about growing food at home. Sarah Caldera Wimmer, who works with families at SouthSide, found more parents volunteered at the school garden after the meeting. “Gateway Greening brought plants for families to take home – basil, tomatoes and peppers; plants that can grow in containers,” she says. “Even if a family doesn’t have a yard, they can grow food.”
"Parents think the garden is cool," says Lowell, “but the biggest draw to the garden for parents is the food.” The garden shows even a small space can produce enough vegetables to feed a family. “We don’t have a childhood obesity epidemic here. We sometimes have the opposite problem of children not having enough to eat.”
Growing food can help families stretch tight budgets. More than 80 percent of parents at SouthSide work full time but earn less than $21,000 a year. Nine out of 10 children at the center live in poverty. Over half the families receive food stamps. The majority of families live in the South St. Louis neighborhoods of Benton Park West, Gravois Park, McKinley Heights and Fox Park. Access to full-service grocery stores means a car or taxi trip of several miles, which isn’t always possible for families.
Some parents started gardens at home after seeing the garden at SouthSide. Parent Elizabeth Amezzcua now grows tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and cilantro in her small backyard. “I wish I had more space,” she says. “My oldest son, who is now 8, was at Southside the first year the garden went in. He waters the plants now at our house, and he is so excited because the cucumbers are starting to come on. My two younger children are at SouthSide now. I know they like the garden, and they like the food too.”
Now Amezzcua wants her own organic garden. “Last year I started reading about organic gardens. All winter we made compost from leftover vegetable scraps ‒ and leaves in the fall. My tomatoes and peppers this year, with the compost, are much bigger.”
As teachers and administrators saw the effects of the garden reverberate into the surrounding community, they recognized an opportunity to expand further on the families’ newfound or revived interest in healthy cooking. They reached out to parents and compiled a community cookbook that combines treasured family recipes with the fruits and vegetables the children have learned to grow and love eating, like teacher Jenny Mack’s eggplant casserole, parent Elizabeth Amezzcua’s family recipe for tacos or curried pea soup from Susie and Gordon Philpott, longtime supporters of the center. A 1950s-era recipe for apple crisp, supplied by Gordon Philpott’s mother, shows the deep and lasting community connections the center engenders.
Next year, when SouthSide will relocate to its new home at Jefferson Avenue and Russell Boulevard, one of the first orders of business will be to begin work on a new garden. Or perhaps more aptly described: an outdoor classroom. “We’re planning an outdoor curriculum that goes beyond gardening,” says Lowell. “And there will be a ‘kids' kitchen’ for cooking that teaches nutrition hands-on.”
In its next iteration, SouthSide’s garden will be given room to grow and spread even further its positive influence on the lives of students, their families and the community that nurtures it.
Buy The Book
Our Food, Our Stories is available for purchase by visiting or calling the center. “The cookbook instills a sense of pride in our families,” says Sarah Wimmer. “When they see their name in print in a book, that’s something. In keeping with our cross-cultural emphasis, the recipes are written both in Spanish and in English.”
SouthSide Early Childhood Center, 2930 Iowa Ave., Benton Park West, 314.865.0322, southside-ecc.org
Try out some of the recipes from Our Food, Our Stories: