Greening is Fundamental! West County DIGS offers kids a healthy break from the classroom

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By Matt Larson

Kids and vegetables just don’t mix. Or do they? Well, the times they are a changin’, and some of our lucky local students who have had a West County DIGS gardening experience may actually know their vegetables even better than we adults.

“Our kids just love going out into the garden, that’s what they want to do the most!” said Graciella Rossi, Project Manager and Co-Founder of West County DIGS, a grassroots nonprofit organization that’s currently serving 39 school gardens in the West County Contra Costa Unified School District. “They don’t even care what they’re doing—they’re looking for insects, they’re shoveling dirt, anything! They just love that connection to nature.”

Gardening has become the highlight of the school day for many West County students. Who knew they’d enjoy working outside in a garden more than sitting in a lecture learning fractions? Okay, perhaps it’s pretty obvious. Rossi is also the garden educator at Mira Vista School in Richmond and has seen firsthand how gardening can have an enormously positive effect on our kids. Be it learning critical thinking skills or learning better eating habits, Rossi has found the results to be tremendous.

“We’re building character in the gardens,” she explains. “Kids are actually working really hard, working in teams, learning leadership skills, decision making … different skills come out with the kids when you take them outdoors.” Rossi goes on to tell how unknown strengths can suddenly flourish when working in the garden, giving an example of a student with ADD who ended up being the first to discover aphids. “They’re just able to utilize their skills more in ways that maybe don’t come out in the classroom.”

One of the greatest benefits is that these kids are rewarded for their efforts by eating what they grew! And just like that, vegetables are in high demand. “These kids that you think aren’t going to ever eat greens are now asking for seconds, and thirds, and fourths!” Rossi exclaimed. Before DIGS, most of these kids had never picked a carrot out of the ground, nor did they have a grasp on what it means to plant a seed, or even what a seed is! But now, after making their own spaghetti sauce and zucchini bread literally from scratch, their perspective is evolving. “Students are changing their whole thought process and connection to vegetables and fruits,” Rossi says. “They are absolutely seeing food differently.”

Talks that led to West County DIGS began in 2007 as just a group of teachers meeting in a restaurant trying to figure out how to make their respective school gardens work by sharing each other’s resources. “We had a ‘garden in every school’ kind of a vision,” said Rossi. “But we had a lot of obstacles. It’s an under-resourced school district and area, but overtime, here we are! We’ve got funding and district support and the gardens are growing like crazy.”

Numerous special projects are also in the works for West County DIGS, including a series of workshops currently happening that are designed to educate other teachers on how they can share gardening with their own students (at this writing, about 200 teachers have gone through their program). In spring of this year they provided over 5,000 seedlings to 23 schools in West County with their Growing Strong Starts Greenhouse Project. 6th graders at Madera Elementary School are engaging in a Green Business program. By May, certain high schoolers will have grown, harvested and cooked enough food to help cater a West County DIGS event…they’ve got a lot of good going on.

Much of the work done to make this all possible has been contributed by Rossi and the West County DIGS team, often off the clock. They’ve managed to maintain resources through sponsorships and volunteering efforts, but still face unexpected challenges like theft and vandalism. “We get paid maybe a quarter of the amount of time we put in,” said Rossi. “But we all do it because we totally believe in it. It’s a labor of love and tears.”

If you’d like to make a donation, volunteer, or just learn more about the great work of West County DIGS, please visit http://www.westcountyschoolgardens.org.

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