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A garden grows at Cushman School

Cushman School students learn to grow their own food and that `slow food' can taste even better than `fast food.'

Published Sunday, March 7, 2010
by Howard Cohen

As fast-food restaurants sprout along Biscayne Boulevard like mushrooms after heavy rains, another sort of movement takes place on a quiet cul-de-sac tucked off the busy thoroughfare.

Here, in a playground at The Cushman School in northeast Miami, sits a vegetable garden where dozens of grade schoolers are learning about the Slow Food program.

The kids, with help from school administrators and the Tobin family who funded the project, have turned the playground's courtyard into a Slow Food garden. Lettuce, eggplant, broccoli, parsley, tomatoes and herbs are starting to poke skyward.

Soon, after much nurturing, these crops will be harvested and a chef will visit and show the children how to turn what they have grown into healthy dishes.

Even the school's art classes are in on the act. Art students are near completion on a mural takeoff of the famed American Gothic, Grant Wood's 1930 painting of a farmer and a woman. The middle schoolers are painting sunflowers on a wall; the literature class is writing poetry.

``It's not just one disciple, it's body, mind and spirit,'' says Lorraine Nowakowski, Cushman's nurse and director of the nutrition program.

``It's kind of fun because we get to plant everything and everybody helps,'' says Isabella Tobin, 7, a Cushman second-grader who cites carrots as her favorite crop.

The Slow Food program at Cushman, a nursery through eighth grade private school, is designed to teach children about healthy nutrition, the science behind the circle of life, even mathematics.

``In all my years of doing this,'' said Donna Reno of Slow Food Miami, ``I have never seen a school embrace this project so wholeheartedly and with so many volunteers.''

Slow Food programs exist in 20 public and seven private schools in Miami-Dade including St. Patrick's Elementary on Miami Beach, North Beach Elementary, Mast Academy and Carrollton. The newest garden went into Kendall's ``green school,'' Terra Environmental Research, this week.

The nonprofit's goal is to assist elementary and middle schools in the creation of children-driven, organic vegetable gardens to foster an approach to eating that is opposite to the fast-food mentality pervasive in American culture.

Childhood obesity rates in the United States, for instance, have tripled since 1980, with one in three children either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

``One of the main themes of Slow Food Miami is to change the way children eat,'' Reno said. ``This is something that can't wait.''

So, on a recent sunny weekday, Cushman's elementary science lab teacher Kyllene Weiss' second-grade class finds itself outside and learning about photosynthesis amid sprouting veggies. The veggies are doing their part, too, as they just happen to be in the middle of that very action.

Two weeks ago the class learned to make salsa from herbs grown here.

``If we can get kids to appreciate growing things instead of making everything so rushed and hasty, it's good,'' Weiss said.

The integrative program is all a part of the 85-year-old school's mission.

``We believe in the development of the whole child,'' said Arvi Balseiro, primary school director. She calls it experiential education.

``We want them to extend this to their own homes and make them greener, too.''

Second-grader Autumn Flint-Burns, 8, scampers over after the garden lesson. She has a little secret. Fast food isn't all that. She really prefers what she's helping grow at the school.

``It has more taste than that stuff.''