Windsor Middle School garden educates as well as feeds

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The fenced garden is a riot of waning plants this late in the summer vegetable season on the far side of Windsor Middle School off Foothill Drive. The raised beds contain a wide variety of peppers and tomatoes, as well as ornamental and edible flowers, herbs and sunflowers. In addition, strawberries, cucumbers, corn, green bean and pumpkins, along with more winter squash, potatoes and onions sprawl across the boxes, some spent with the season, others still growing strong.

What once was considered unusual, a student garden at school, is now commonplace and considered an active way for students to explore the science behind growing plants and get hands-on experience with the farm-to-table movement, while eating farm fresh produce along the way.

But it takes money and energy to create a garden at a school. Enter Amie Lands, a Windsor Middle School teacher with more than a decade of restaurant experience.

Lands was recovering from cancer treatment when Marie Ganister, the director of the award-winning Vineyard Academy at Windsor High School, was invited to submit a grant application to extend the program to middle school, including fifth through eighth grades. The invitation came from California Partnership Academies, a career and technical education program.

They were awarded the grant, and Vineyard Academy birthed Vineyard Academy Harvest at Windsor Middle School. The joint programs explore careers in hospitality, tourism and recreation. In addition, fifth grade students at Brooks Elementary School receive education in career exploration under the same grant.

Amie Lands worked in the restaurant business while getting her teaching credential, including the additional continuing education credential specializing in hospitality, tourism and recreation, one of the programs offered through California’s state CTE credentialing program.

Lands credits working at both Johnny Garlic’s and Tex Wasabi’s restaurants with local entrepreneur and Emmy-award winning Food Network star Guy Fieri for giving her much of her teaching experience. Working at the restaurants paid off her school debt and offered her valuable experience with people. She also credits Fieri with introducing her to her husband, who also was in the restaurant business.

Working with Lands, who has 13 years of experience teaching fourth through eighth grades, are two other Windsor Middle School teachers. Laura LoCicero, 60, is also the garden coordinator and Scott Schoepp, also 60, teaches art and culinary classes to sixth graders and engineering to seventh and eighth graders.

Lands, 39, was a student of both teachers in 1993 and 1994. She credits them with inspiring her to follow her career path. She’s gone from restaurants to teaching now, but she believes that all youth should spend time working in hospitality, as it provides a solid work foundation and can offer a jumping off place for those with an entrepreneurial spirits.

“Amie is the perfect person in a perfect spot. It was my dream to grow the program as it has and Amie is the perfect person to bring it to fruition,” said Ganister.

Last winter, Lands wrote more grant applications during her recovery and now they’ve received grants from the Raley’s and the Sonoma County Office of Education, as well as the grant. In addition, she and LoCicero researched and developed the culinary program and planned the garden during that time.

They began a culinary club this past spring, to support the fledgling program. Students volunteered to build the raised beds for the garden. Each meeting of the culinary club brought out about 30  students to work. By the summer of 2019, the garden was complete and the beds planted, and produce began to come in.

Now, the student culinary-gardening programs are shaping up. Lands teaches four classes and Schoepp two. Between 400 and 500 students will go through the program over the course of a school year. By the time the program runs for three full school years, every student will have touched the garden and worked in the kitchen.

Sixth graders have a mandatory class in food education. After that, seventh and eighth grade students must apply to take part in the program, which runs for a semester for seventh graders and for the full school year for eighth grade.

The three teachers are working on the criteria to move from one class to the next, and for the application process to move on to Vineyard Academy.

The students learn basic kitchen skills, food safety, knife skills, how to clean a kitchen, how to read recipes, as well as the right way to do measurements. The students will be certified food handlers before they reach high school, according to Ganister.

LoCicero, a seventh grade science teacher, has grown plants with her students before, so the garden is a broad expansion of the work she already did. LoCicero wanted a garden to support the culinary program.

“The credit for the garden goes to Laura LoCicero, she is the visionary for the project,” said Lands. “She is the lifeblood of the garden and I’m so grateful to her.”

Currently the garden only feeds the students in the culinary classes at the school. The garden supplies fresh produce for the culinary classes, though they also use additional produce in the classes.

Of course, with their vision and ambition, the trio didn’t stop at having a fully planted garden and a culinary program, they are now in the process of extending the gardens to a teaching garden in a separate area that was once filled with old bike racks and “dead” picnic benches. Soon it will burst with plants in galvanized troughs, raised teaching tables and picnic tables to facilitate working outside, as well as in.

Furthermore, they are setting up several hydroponics systems in the eighth grade classroom. Each unit holds 48 heads of lettuce.

On the September day of the visit, Lands had already pulled peppers, tomatoes and onions for salad and additional pepper and jalapeños, for salsa with the onions and tomatoes. Some of the students are excited to explore spicy foods. This month, they’ll harvest pumpkins and glass gem corn for popping. The cycles of planting and harvest continue, each in their own season, at the newest school garden in Windsor.

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