The Hamilton County Health Department is planting seeds with children in our area in more ways than one. It's teaching valuable life skills through gardening. The program is called Step ONE--ONE stands for Optimize with Nutrition and Exercise. The program offers grants to set up learning gardens like the one at Orchard Knob Elementary School.
The students there are getting a first look at their garden since the spring. It's is one of 14 teaching gardens at Hamilton county schools. Teacher Ellen Craig says it's important for the children to build a connection with the earth.
"To recognize that food comes from the ground. It grows. It doesn't just come from a grocery store," says Craig.
The Step ONE grants, ranging from $250-$1,000, pay for the materials. However, the children do a lot of the work, from planting the seeds to weeding and other maintenance. They take ownership of the garden and their team work leads to enthusiasm and confidence.
"I remember one year in particular we had parsley," recalls Craig. "Most of them had never tasted it. So I pulled off little sprigs and gave it to them and they would taste it and they liked it, most of them. So I came back later and the whole thing was gone." The children had eaten it all!
Craig says the students have a lot of fun while learning.
"I learned that food needs water every day when they're growing. And they need compost and stuff like that," says second-grader Kristina Ellison.
"I like to look at the fruits and vegetables. I like to touch them. See how they feel," says fourth-grader Minor Lopez.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Census Bureau, around 72,000 people in Hamilton County live in areas called "food deserts" based on their poverty level and proximity to retail outlets offering healthy produce.
Step ONE manager John Bilderback says the gardens alone won't solve the problem, but they play an important part.
"It's not necessarily a solution for food access. But when you do that in concert with things like the Mobile Market and other educational programs, you begin to start to make a dent," states Bilderback.
He says the response to the program has been very positive in the several years since it started. Many gardens have been established at places other than schools. The focus has been mostly on east and south Chattanooga, but Bilderback wants to expand.
"It's open to anybody that thinks they have a good idea for a garden and we'll announce those in September," adds Bilderback.
If your school or organization is interested in setting up a teaching garden through Step ONE, go to this link to fill out an application. Select Healthy Eating' at the top, then scroll down and select 'Garden Grant Application'. The deadline for applications is August 31 for next spring's gardens.