Joey Poolo had never gardened before. The 16-year-old simply knew that if he volunteered to help with Riverway Learning Community’s school garden two years ago, he could get out of the classroom and into the fresh air.
“I decided to try it and haven’t stopped since,” Poolo said, a wide smile spreading across his face as the unexpected sun beat down Thursday morning.
Poolo is one of dozens of Riverway students who lend a hand each season—at the very start and the very end of the school year when the weather is just right. Riverway students and staff participate in a local food initiative, growing much of their own breakfast, lunch and snack food, with a final goal of becoming 100 percent sustainable and independent.
Riverway Learning Community is a third-year participant in the Winona Farmers’ Market, but this year, the students and staff have a secret green weapon: Rochelle Jansen. Jansen has been with the school since September, and acts as a consultant on behalf of the Minnesota GreenCorps organization.
Jansen began preparing for this year’s market by seeding their own plants indoors in February and March, and has just recently begun the process of transplanting the new buds in Riverway’s outdoor gardens.
Five primary school students ages 9-11 assisted Thursday morning, tenderly uprooting small basil plants and repotting them outside in larger containers. While a few of the boys could be seen waving full arms through a trough of fresh dirt—visibly excited to have a reason to get a little dirty—many took the task seriously, gently moving each root with precision. Despite the wide age range Jansen must work with in the garden, a universal truth holds true outside in the beds.
“Everyone really likes planting seeds—being able to put them in the ground, cover them up—just digging in the soil,” Jansen said.
Just feet away, Riverway learning leader Jamie Harper instructed and worked alongside a handful of the older students, weeding and hoeing the fresh garden beds. Sweat began to gather on the students’ foreheads and discussion began on the hard work of gardening.
“You should be thankful for your food,” Harper said. “Everything you buy at Midtown or Hyvee, someone did this.”
Harper has been a supporter of the garden program at Riverway, continually caring for the gardens even when students leave for the summer break. Harper sees great benefit not only for the community from the produce grown at the school and sold at the Farmers’ Market, but also for the students themselves.
“Gardening provides a lot of opportunity for inter-curricular teaching,” Harper said. “You can incorporate many subjects in it: labor, energy, sustainability, marketing, graphic design. The idea of how people grow and obtain food; that something has to go into it is important for the students to learn.”
This year, in addition to the vegetables, herbs and flowers the students have cultivated, Riverway will sell baked goods like bagels and granola—from recipes perfected for use in their own meals—as well as maple syrup collected by the students. These products available to the community also benefit the school’s overall mission of sustainability.
“It allows us to sell what we’re not able to consume ourselves,” Krause said.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, Riverway will host their regular table at the Farmers’ Market, but will also add an educational component to the sale, with students providing hands-on displays and demonstrations about the produce and products available for purchase.
“We want the Farmers’ Market to be educational for the students—through marketing and promotions—as well as for the customers,” Jansen said.
And it won’t be up to only the students to provide this knowledge.
“It’s really important for Riverway to involve the parents in activities like the Farmers’ Market to make it a complete community,” Jansen said. “We have so many ideas, so many things to do, so the more people that can help, the better.”
Riverway Learning Community will host a Saturday School “Living Green Festival” May 14 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the school, with a focus on learning how to grow your own food and reduce waste.