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Children, volunteers and organizers braved earthworms and dirty hands June 29 at the Oak Park - River Forest Day Nursery to construct a new fruit and vegetable garden for the nursery's children as part of the local "Seeds to Sprouts" program.
The garden, which consists of six large planter boxes tucked away on the far side of the nursery's playground, was planted with a variety of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, corn and lettuce. Ellen Winter, the lead organizer for Seeds to Sprouts and executive director of the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association, said she was pleased with the way the garden came together and applauded the Day Nursery for already having five planter boxes to work with. The Nineteenth Century Charitable Association funded the project.
Winter started her program, which has also been responsible for two other gardens at local daycares, after finishing a community project focused on the same outreach efforts through Dominican University's Community Leadership Program.
The program's goal is to introduce young children to the sources of food and the importance of eating a healthy diet in a time when childhood obesity is at record levels, according to Winter. The program does this by providing the young children an opportunity to work with the plants and learn about the work needed to produce the food they eat.
Winter said she collaborated with Seamus Ford, co-founder of the local organization Root Riot, on the OP-RF Day Nursery's garden to maximize the teaching opportunities the garden could provide. Root Riot has a similar goal of educating people about growing food and the importance of "food literacy" through the construction of community gardens. Ford met with Catherine Hart, the OP-RF Day Nursery's executive director, to determine what type of garden would be best suited to the nursery and then used his experience with Root Riot to lead the planning and construction efforts.
"A lot of our children live in the city so they don't have the opportunity to eat food that they have grown and seen grow because when their parents take them to the grocery store the food is already there," Hart said. "We have found that if children can work the food, in terms of helping it to grow, they are more willing to try it, especially if they have seen where it has come from."
Winter said her program's gardens are most successful when nurseries introduce the fruits and vegetables as daily snacks, something Hart has said she plans to do. The garden's success also depends on participation from parents and staff because the young children often look up to adults to determine their eating habits, according to Winter.
Hart said she has already seen considerable interest from the nursery's children as well as parents and staff, some of whom volunteered to build the garden.
Winter said she would like to continue expanding Seeds to Sprouts to other nurseries and daycares in the area and Ford has said he would be willing to continue the collaboration in the future, especially if the projects continue to take place in the local community where he feels his organization's goal and the idea of educating young children about food is so well received.
"The generation of kids that are in preschool are going to see profound changes in the way food is produced and distributed," Ford said. "You give children [this] chance to learn these skills at a young age and it is something that will give them delight for a lifetime."