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Brentwood teacher helps students grow roots in conservation and nutrition education

Anahi Vicente Gomez, 11, plants snap peas April 24 at Brentwood Middle School in Greeley. Gomez and her class build and tend to the garden started by their earth science teacher Steve Swenson.
For The Tribune/KELSEY BRUNNER |
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To help

You can make a contribution to support the student garden with a donation. Checks in care of Steve Swenson can be sent to Brentwood Middle School, 2600 24th Ave. Court in Greeley, Colo. Swenson will also accept donated plants.

For more information, call Loeta Hendrickson at the school at (970) 348-3000.

It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, and Arely Flores rips out the weeds that have re-emerged around the perimeter of a garden in a field behind Greeley, Colo.’s Brentwood Middle School.

She tears a large weed loose, bringing soil and roots from the ground, along with a shiny black bug that starts crawling along the upended soil toward Arely’s hand. The sixth-grader freezes.

“Does that bite?” she says with wide eyes.



Arely considers what to do. Smash it? Scream? Run away? Then she realizes she’s in a garden.

“It might be a bug that helps the plants,” Arely says while gently brushing the bug toward another plant.



Steve Swenson came up with the idea of the garden for his sixth-grade Earth science class at Brentwood eight years ago to cultivate a deeper understanding of the ecosystem.

The small patch of dirt didn’t produce much at first, but in time, after a couple of tries, the garden grew so much that it went beyond a way to teach a lesson about conservation. It became a way for his students to bring fresh produce home.

In Greeley-Evans School District 6, more than 60 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and Swenson saw a need in his own students, as well. As the garden grew and began to produce a lot of vegetables, students picked vegetables to bring home with Swenson’s blessing.

Now the garden, which has grown to four plots, produces enough for students, the school cafeteria and even a few hungry teachers.

Theresa Myers, spokeswoman for District 6, said the school district has an award-winning nutrition services program. Cafeterias serve entrees from scratch and endorse the use of farm-to-table programs to give students a nutritious lunch. However, having such access to vegetables might not be available to some students at home. Lower-income neighborhoods typically are farther away from grocery stores that offer fresh produce. Health experts call these areas “food deserts,” and they are one of the reasons people living in poverty tend to have unhealthy diets.

“We know in high poverty students that they don’t often have access to fresh vegetables,“ Myers said.

Swenson described how most students might only regularly see a tomato on a cheeseburger, until he introduces them to the class garden.

“It is hard to change that culture of eating fresh food, when you have a choice between a bag a pears for $6 and fast food,” Myers said. “You have to make those hard choices.”

Of course, you can offer vegetables, but you still have to get kids to eat them. So what would make a student suddenly have a hankering to try something like spinach?

For students, producing their own vegetables and seeing them coveted by teachers seems to have opened up their minds to expanding their diets.

“When one of our teachers went crazy over the beets we were growing, students suddenly wanted to try them,” Swenson said.

Another time Swenson said a bunch of lettuce seeds had been spilled outside the garden, where lettuce then started to grow. Swenson was eating the lettuce one day as he removed it from the ground, and the students wanted to do the same. Swenson said that students are often eager to share how they might use the vegetables in a salad or other dish at home.

With the help of the garden, students begin to see the bigger picture. Swenson said students who begin his class think of the grocery store as their food provider, but after they work in the garden, they begin to understand the whole process of food cultivation. They also start to understand their impact on the land.

“(The garden) is so strong on the application part of education, when they go from looking at books and pictures to actual growing something,” Swenson said. “It is like the difference between knowing of the Grand Canyon and actually having been to the Grand Canyon.”

Reduce, reuse, recycle and patience, patience, patience. These are the principles Swenson helps the students to see with the cultivation of the garden.

“If we can use the land productively, but not cause a problem that is a good example of what the garden can do,” Swenson said.

Swenson has his students draw water samples from around the school property to test the water for nitrate levels. Nitrate is an element found in fertilizer, so if students have been overfertilizing they will be able to find traces in the water.

Since he started the garden eight years ago, Swenson has inspired other schools in the district with their own garden projects. Swenson said he frequently swaps tips with John Evans Middle School, where students grow tomatoes and peppers. Swenson also visits the Poudre Learning Center to give pointers on growing gardens.

On that same, sunny Friday, after passing around shovels and work gloves, Swenson’s students began to plant their next crops. Juan Rodarte broke up the soil with a rake. Daniel Najera shoveled dirt into a wheelbarrow and Anahi Vicente Gomez sat in the dirt making careful indents with her pinky to make a place for yellow spinach seeds.

For Arely, working in the garden has not only helped overcome her fear of bugs, but it’s given her an interest in plant engineering. She said that last semester she researched the topic.

“It’s really cool,” Arely said of the garden. “We get to do reclamation work and fix the watershed and a bunch of stuff, too.”

Swenson doesn’t want to take too much credit for the garden. His students, after all, are the ones getting dirty.

“They take a lot of ownership,” he said. “They are the ones who do it all.” ❖


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