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NMSU Extension nutrition educator introduces Portales students to growing vegetables

PORTALES – Elementary school students in Portales are not only learning to eat their vegetables, but also how to grow them.


Boy with a radish
Students at James Elementary School in Portales discover what a radish looks like as they harvest the vegetable from their school garden. They are among the 161 first- and second-graders participating in the Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition (ICAN) program, conducted by New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. (Courtesy photo)
Girl looking at plants
First and second grade students at James Elementary School in Portales are learning where vegetables come from by raising a garden. Their first harvest included radishes and spinach. (Courtesy photo)

Two programs designed to introduce children to healthy practices have combined to create a garden at James Elementary School.

Roosevelt County coordinators of the Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition program, conducted by New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; and Healthy Kids New Mexico, a project of the New Mexico Department of Health, are working together to show the children how to raise vegetables and the nutritious ways to eat them.

“The school garden was started by Caron Powers, Roosevelt County’s coordinator of Healthy Kids,” said Carol Calderon, NMSU Cooperative Extension Service nutritional educator in Roosevelt County. “With donations by community partners and the labor of the school’s teachers, six 3-feet-by-8-feet raised garden beds were created.”

The 161 first and second grade students helped plant lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes, beets and onions on March 7. They tasted radishes and spinach after the first harvest on April 27.

Through her ICAN programs in the classroom, Calderon brought gardening indoors by starting plants in windowsill trays.

“We planted cucumbers, squash, cantaloupes, cherry tomatoes and pumpkins,” Calderon said. “Each student will take home a plant to raise during the summer. The remaining plants will be planted in the school garden, which the summer recreation program will maintain.”

The plants spouted quickly, however, it will be a while before the students will see the vegetables form. Calderon wanted the students to know what they were raising, so during her nutrition classes she has tastings of the vegetables.

“I wanted them to see what the vegetable will look like when it’s on the plant so I brought in the whole vegetable,” she said. “And I prepared recipes with the vegetable so they could taste it.”

To make her point that vegetables are good for the students’ health, she used a mini-cookie cutter shaped like a heart to turn cucumber slides into a fun snack.

“They are more willing to try new vegetables if you make it fun,” Calderon said. “With the heart-shaped cucumber slices I told the students that their hearts loved vegetables because they are good for them.”

ICAN is a free, fun, hands-on nutrition education for limited-resource families. Calderon teaches the adults how to prepare quick and nutritious meals, use new cooking skills, use commodity foods more wisely, store and handle food properly and safely, save money at the grocery store and maintain a healthy weight.

Throughout New Mexico, ICAN programs are in 21 counties. Curry, Hidalgo and Luna counties join Roosevelt County with windowsill gardening in the classrooms, while McKinley, Valencia and Bernalillo counties are using a gardening curriculum while educating the students about nutrition.

Additionally in Roosevelt County, Calderon and Powers join their efforts to present the Healthy Kids 5-2-1-0 Challenge to second through fourth grade students at Valencia Elementary. The challenge encourages youth to each day eat five or more fruits and vegetables, trim their “screen time” to two hours, be active for at least one hour, and drink lots of water.

They have also shown sixth-graders at Lindsey Middle School how to “Rethink Your Drink” by infusing water with fresh vegetables and fruits.

“One mother reported that her daughter was really excited about the garden and tastings,” Calderon said. “She said our program had gotten her daughter to eat lettuce again.”