By Helen Mitternight
When students participating in the Earth Heart Growers program go on a field trip, they are likely to go to a real field.
The program started after Montessori teacher Liz Ramirez saw a student in her North Charleston elementary school coming to school with a lollipop. Liz grew up on a farm in Colombia, South America, and the sight of a young child with all that processed sugar on a stick acted as the spur to get her to start what would become her passion project.
In September 2015, Liz founded Earth Heart Growers at Malcolm C. Hursey Elementary School, with the help of the school’s PTA. The school already had a garden. Liz added a cooking program.
Now, EHG offers students gardening at their school, cooking and baking classes, and marketing lessons that emphasize sustainable practices. The program teaches the kids better eating habits, healthy lifestyle choices and living in balance with the environment.
For the little ones as young as 3 years old, the nonprofit teaches gardening, where they learn about the whole food cycle, from seed to compost.
Middle-school children go once a month to an organic farm to learn about agriculture and spend some time in the field learning about where their food comes from. They also run a community-supported agriculture program and deliver the healthy produce to the school’s families, extending the health benefits beyond the students themselves.
For the older kids, EHG provides instruction in agriculture, organic farming and harvesting, and then in cooking the results of that harvest. And the older children help the younger ones with baking projects, creating a mentor system that helps all the students.
“It’s very impressive to me to see middle school children, where they didn’t understand that all the food comes from the farm,” Liz says. “They thought food comes from the grocery store. We are growing the food from seed and seeing the whole process.”
She adds that educating the child means educating the family.
“If a child is able to read and follow directions, the child can actually get to make a meal,” she says. “If we can actually teach our children not just how to grow, but how to cook, when they go home, they understand they can make something from what they have. And they educate the whole family about composting food scraps because the children discover that the scraps don’t have to go into the landfill. We save them because they’re going to feed our garden.”
Liz and EHG have facilitated a partnership between three local Montessori schools and Joseph Fields Farm on Johns Island. Joseph, along with his wife, Helen, are third-generation farmers from the Gullah-Geechee culture. Attendees at local farmers markets may already be familiar with their fresh, organic produce.
“Joseph and Helen are amazing,” Liz says. “They come to schools and try to meet people. All the programs are volunteer-based. The parents who come get to see where the food is growing. Our mission is to connect the community with the earth, and give people a chance to come back to what it is supposed to be.”
EHG has a pilot program this year on Mosquito Beach on James Island for students to help clean out the marshes and to learn about the environment and care of saltwater marshes. The experience includes cooking and feeding the group at the end of the day.
“So many of our students have never seen the beach,” Liz says. “They don’t get the chance. They live in Charleston, but the beach is like another state for them.”
For Liz, the best part of all of this is seeing how what her students have learned is reflected back through the families.
“I’ll have families come up to me and say, ‘My child just made omelets for our breakfast as a surprise!’ That’s pretty common that they want to cook for their families and show off what they’ve learned.”
TO GET INVOLVED:
Check the website earth-heartgrowers.org and sign up to volunteer, either to help with existing projects or to share practical knowledge.
“We’re always looking for people to share what they know – like if they work for a construction company, they can teach us how to build something,” Liz says.