Gardening program teaches kids healthy growing, cooking

Eleven-year-old Nakaila Mosley is involved in a Wilmington youth garden that is trying to teach children about healthy eating, as well as entrepreneurial and financial literacy, by selling their produce at a youth-led farm stand.

She admits the allure of making some green from her veggies is appealing, but the soon-to-be Bayard Middle School sixth-grader is more interested in something else.

"Most kids would do it for the money," she said. "But me, I'm doing it for the experience so I know how to plant stuff. So when I get older I might be able to plant stuff."

Mosley is participating in the Southbridge Community Youth Garden, on offshoot of a community garden started three years ago by the Neighborhood House Inc.

When organizers saw the community garden's effect on the neighborhood, they decided to try that with the children, said Patricia Kelleher, programs director at Neighborhood House.

"It's a great opportunity for community building," Kelleher said, pointing out that while others were indoors when it was cold, garden participants were working together preparing the gardens. "It gets people out. It gets people involved in healthy activities."

While kids started planting in the community farm, they're now ready to transfer their crops to the new youth garden at 528 Claymont St. .

The after-school program also seeks to teach participants about financial literacy by keeping track of what they've spent on their product and selling their produce at a youth-led farm stand once a month.

The group teamed up with Capital One for the financial component of the program, said Randi Novakoff, Neighborhood House outreach manager. She also manages the garden.

They also have been preparing for the farm stand which will be held on the last Friday of every month from July through September at the Neighborhood House.

Programs like this grow more than plants, according to the National Gardening Association. Kids participating in school garden programs improve their knowledge of good nutrition, broaden their tastes in terms of food choices, and increase their consumption of vegetables and fruits.

And that is needed in Southbridge, which is designated a food desert area, lacking adequate access to fresh vegetables and fruits.

When Novakoff first started asking the children what vegetables they wanted to grow, few could answer. In fact, she said some said they wanted whatever came in a hamburger.

"A lot of theses kids are unfortunately eating the majority of their diets at fast food restaurants and convenience stores," she said. "They don't have as access to the fresh vegetables."

The program also has a healthy cooking demonstration where the children learn about cooking what they grow. This was good news to Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank, a nonprofit organization working on building safe, healthy, nourished eaters.

Teaching children how to cook healthy portions of food is just as important as teaching them where the food comes from, Nierenberg said.

This is especially important as many schools have dropped culinary arts and home economics courses.

"We need to take the next step," she said. "It's great that kids are getting outside, that they are understanding where their food is grown … but [also] taking the next step and involving kids in cooking and in culinary traditions."