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Master Gardeners will help students plant community plot on Century grounds

A school/community garden will sprout on Century School grounds when summer arrives, a committee having formed to propagate the plan.

Master Gardeners Dr. Maurice Spangler and Sally Shearer presented the concept to the school board this week, gaining a nod of approval.

The mission, Spangler explained, is to improve students' health by encouraging families to grow and eat healthier food.

Community Education intends to contribute to the initiative by offering a healthy eating class in conjunction, Jill Dickinson reported.

The 50- by 100-foot community garden will be located in the area south of Century School. There is room for 25 raised garden beds, 4 by 12 feet, which will be enclosed with a deer fence.

Entrance would be gained via a gate with a combination lock for those with access.

Grant money may be sought to purchase apple trees to be planted on Century School grounds, also accessible to the public.

Families would register for a plot or plots and would be responsible for planting, maintenance and harvesting. A $25 fee would be charged with $15 returned if the plot is maintained.

The school's industrial arts class has agreed to construct a shed to house garden tools.

There would be no expense to the school in dollars or staff time, Spangler said. Volunteers would establish the garden and assist students and families with horticulture how-to.

SHIP (Statewide Health Improvement Program) has "potentially" $3,300 for equipment and materials, Spangler said.

The initiative stems from national concern that health is deteriorating due to the increasing prevalence of obesity and diseases related to it - diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and arthritis, Spangler said.

Many students consume a diet consisting of commercially processed foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt. Dietitians recommend more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed food.

Superintendent Glenn Chiodo said the garden has been in discussion stages for a year, indicating support for the measure.

The proposed extension of the Heartland Trail would run parallel to the gardens.

Board member Gary Gauldin suggested funding might be available through a Farm to School program.

"Down the road," the garden committee is eyeing a farm-to-cafeteria program, Spangler said. Committee members attended a workshop hosted by the University of Minnesota Extension, learning Brainerd and Bemidji have launched successful programs.

Farm-to-cafeteria would likely begin with a summer school audience, "and gradually expand from that."

The proposal could provide healthier food to students and "improve our local economy by increasing market share for local farmers, as well as reducing the cost and need for transporting food from far away farms," Spangler said.

The committee also is considering building a greenhouse or hoop house to extend the growing season. Kids could possibly engage in selling vegetables or flowers.

This is "several years into the future," Spangler said, "depending on the success of the garden."

The Developmental Achievement Center, Kinship and Park Rapids Farmers Market have expressed interest in the endeavor, he said.