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Laporte School's edible playground: Amy Mastin named Outstanding Ag in Classroom Teacher

Proud of their produce, Laporte students see their crops grow and become part of the school lunch program. The community garden also has plots for families that want to explore gardening. Submitted photo.

Laporte teacher Amy Mastin has a passion for connecting her students with growing healthy food.

She started a community garden at the school in the spring of 2015 when she was teaching fifth graders and now is exploring the concept of a school greenhouse.

Her efforts have earned her the 2018 Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom Outstanding Teacher Award. She will now be in the running for the national award.

"I grew up on a farm," she said. "I know how much you can learn from gardening and saw a school garden as an opportunity to connect students with their source of food and connect gardening with our curriculum."

After researching the art of straw bale gardening and preparing the bales with water and fertilizer, students planted a wide variety of vegetables including tomatoes, green beans, kale, broccoli, squash and pumpkins. She credits A.J. Dombeck, Laporte's community education director who is also a preschool teacher, with helping her move the garden from an idea to a reality.

A gardener who sells his produce at the Bemidji Farmer's Market during the summer, Dombeck also helped write the startup grant.

Some of the food goes to the school kitchen to become part of meals in the cafeteria.

"The green beans seemed to last forever," Mastin said. "Student helpers brought them from the garden to the school cooks. When students went through the lunch line and realized they were eating the green beans they grew, they were so proud!"

The next step was moving from straw bale gardening to 26 raised beds. With support and encouragement from David Collins of the Hubbard County Economic Development Commission, they sent out 1,000 letters requesting funds for lumber to build the raised beds. Students in the high school construction trades class built the beds.

"Now we have an edible playground," she said. "Kids can take a break from swinging and eat a green bean or carrot from the garden. They also like to walk in the garden area, touch the dirt and look for bugs."

In addition to producing a variety of vegetables, the garden provides teachers at Laporte School with many opportunities for hands-on learning. Second graders do a study on pumpkins, science classes watch worms composting and keep a journal about plant growth, math classes graph and measure.

Students in the high school construction trades class built an outdoor classroom to make it easier for teachers to utilize the garden space with students.

The outdoor classroom is surrounded by three school walls and has three benches, teaching supplies and a white board teachers can write on during their lessons.

"Several classrooms have windows looking out on the garden," Mastin said. "Students can watch winter birds feeding on the giant sunflowers they planted."

In February, seeds are purchased to meet the requests of classroom, cooks and community members. Leftovers vegetables from lunch and worms are kept in a tub to create the compost needed to start seeds indoors in the early spring.

"The sixth graders came up with the idea to compost leftovers from the lunch line on a larger scale," Mastin said. "They are going to do a waste survey and look into using compost to supplement soil in the raised beds or possibly selling the compost to raise money towards future gardening projects."

As the gardens grow, so do the opportunities to provide healthy food for school lunches.

All elementary classrooms, as well as the middle school and high school science labs, have indoor "grow labs" that use fluorescent lights to grow things like kale and lettuce. Student graph the growth of plants and keep a journal about what they are learning through their indoor garden.

During the summer months, the garden was cared for by members of the Garden Club that included students, parents and a couple of teachers. They watered, weeded and harvest crops as they ripened. The school garden includes 10 plots that are for rent for $20 each.

"If they clean the garden in the fall, they get the $20 back," Mastin said.

"Our cooks, Lisa Katzenmeyer and Deb Roller, they freeze items to use later. They use our greens and tomatoes in salad and shred kale and add it to chili. They put 100 cups of zucchini into breakfast muffins, and are always looking for new ways to use the food we grow."

Mastin and Dombeck will be giving a presentation about how they started their school garden at this year's Minnesota Schoolyard Garden Coalition conference at the Arboretum.

Mastin will also be a featured speaker at this summer's garden tour for teachers that includes Wadena School's garden. She will also attend a national conference in Maine.

Mastin said her dreams for the future are for a greenhouse that would supply fresh vegetables to the school salad bar all year long.

"First we need permission to use the space, and then we need to find the money," she said. "Through the Farm to School program, food we grow can be purchased from the school budget so we could be self-sustaining."

She also hopes to restore the school's abandoned apple orchards so they will once again produce fruit.