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Deep Roots: WCHD Teaches Students about Nutrition, Gardening - from The Messenger

July 17, 2021

Random vegetable plants fleck the outer edges of the playground and fenced-in gardens at Butler Elementary School. Each oddly placed stem stretching to reach the sun while winding around its surroundings - a chain link fence, a railroad tie, the school building - and soon, each will produce a surprise vegetable planted months ago by Fort Dodge elementary students.

"Those plant starters without a pattern in their planting, those were placed during a scavenger hunt that I had with students," said Erica Loerts of the Webster County Health Department. "The students love the garden - planting, weeding, digging in the dirt - they love it all. Teaching them is my favorite and I know they enjoy the lessons, too."

Loerts serves as a project director as well as nutrition education coordinator and farm-to-school coordinator for the Iowa Nutrition Network school grant program through the Webster County Health Department. The role allows Loerts the opportunity to work with elementary students to teach them about nutrition, farming and gardening, and even where their food comes from.

"These strawberry plants," said Loerts, pointing to a raised garden plot at Butler Elementary overflowing with green strawberry leaves. "We planted these. The students get excited when they see the tiny start to a strawberry, and then we watch as it grows every day before we can finally pluck it and eat it."

"Ms. Erica" as she's known to students, has partnered with administrators and teachers within the Fort Dodge Community School District for a number of years, creating deep roots for the nutrition program which has had soaring results for students and their families.

"Erica is loved by our students. She is always upbeat and positive," said Ryan Flaherty, principal at Duncombe Elementary School. "I've had a very positive experience working with Erica and the nutrition program."

"Our students absolutely love Erica and her excitement about fruits and vegetables and good nutrition," added Carmen Banwart, former principal at Butler Elementary School who is now the principal of the Early Childhood Center. "They get so excited when she is here to teach. They dig in the dirt and talk about good nutrition and how food grows and they take that back home to their parents."

It's these long-time ties within the school district that allowed Loerts and the nutrition program to continue meeting with and teaching students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I adapted. We changed how we normally did lessons, but students still got to learn about fruits and vegetables, to try new foods, and plant seeds, to make healthy food choices" said Loerts. "I'm so thankful that the schools saw the importance of this nutrition program and allowed me to continue working with students."

During these lessons, students learned about fruits and vegetables like cranberries, blueberries, squash, and even pomegranates. Loerts taught the students where the produce typically grows, how farmers grow and harvest it, and students even had the opportunity to taste test the literal fruit of the lesson to see if it met their expectations.

"There was always so much learning and fun happening during our lessons, even when we were virtual," said Loerts.

"Erica did a great job of adapting to the restrictions of COVID-19 and delivered lessons virtually," added Flaherty. "She did a great job of communicating with our teachers and our students love to interact and learn from her."

When in-person learning began again, Loerts and her bottomless boxes of fruits and vegetables were welcomed back into the classrooms for face-to-face lessons and taste testings again. This spring, she and her students even dug back into their garden plots outside of Butler and Duncombe elementaries.

"The kids absolutely love the garden," said Loerts. "I've seen kids completely change their behavior once they start digging in the garden. It's very calming. The kids love to share stories about their own experiences with gardening. I had some second graders outside with me and I remember that we were talking about pollinators and they had so much fun actually seeing bees instead of just reading about them."

It's these moments of learning about important life long lessons like bee pollination and how cranberry bogs work that Loerts says fuels her love of nutrition and teaching students within the Fort Dodge school system.

"It's a great way to incorporate and promote local fruits and vegetables and teach the kids where their food came from," said Loerts. "It's also a great way to teach a new hobby like gardening, how calming digging in the dirt can be, the importance of quiet time outside, and how the fruits of your labor are always worth the digging and planting that you put into it."

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