Potato harvest provides Portland students with hands-on learning

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PORTLAND — Potatoes are relatively easy to grow, are nutritious and have a deep connection to Maine’s agricultural past and present.

These are just some of the reasons why Cultivating Community has partnered with several of the city’s elementary schools to feature potatoes on an upcoming school lunch menu.

Students at Riverton, Hall and Reiche Elementary, along with those from the East End Community School, spent part of their day Sept. 22 digging up potatoes that were planted in their school gardens last spring.

In addition to the potatoes, students also harvested leeks, which together will become the ingredients for a special potato-leek hash that will be served for lunch at all four schools Thursday.

“Involving (students) in growing, harvesting, taste-testing and preparing food makes them much more willing and excited to eat healthy foods,” said Lily Chaleff of Cultivating Community.

Chaleff, who was on hand to help Riverton Elementary students harvest their potatoes last week, said partnering with the Portland School Department on school gardens is a great way to connect kids to the foods they eat.

“Potatoes are great,” Chaleff said, “because you can plant them in the spring and they’re ready in the fall. This is also a way for us to focus on local foods and their value.”

She said the second-grade students at Riverton Elementary were “really excited” about digging up the potatoes and gathering the leeks last week.

But the goal was also to connect the gardening experience to the curriculum, including vocabulary, math and science, Chaleff said.

For example, last week the students were encouraged to scientifically observe the harvested vegetables by looking, tasting, touching and smelling, she said. The students also learned a “great song about dirt.”

In addition, the students read the book, “Potatoes for ME,” which is designed to teach kids about the importance of the potato to the state of Maine.

In fact, according to the book, which is a joint effort between the Maine Department of Agriculture and the Maine Potato Board, potatoes are the state’s largest crop.

“Potatoes grow best in cool weather, with just the right amount of sun, rain, and fertile soil. This makes Maine the perfect place to grow the best potatoes,” the book says, adding, “Potatoes are good for you.

“They contain vitamin C, fiber and loads of potassium. Boiled or baked, mashed or roasted, potatoes are always great. Don’t forget to eat Maine potatoes to grow up healthy and strong.”

Overall, a school department press release said, “Cultivating Community helps teachers and administrators create learning gardens and develop garden-based curriculum. Schools (then) use the food and gardens to teach about nutrition, science, math and stewardship.”

For some students, Chaleff said, harvesting vegetables directly from a garden is a totally new experience.

That’s one reason Cultivating Community and the schools spend so much time teaching kids about the connection between what you can grow and what’s on the table.

“We have a real issue with nature proficiency,” these days, Chaleff said, and the school gardening program helps students to “become more comfortable with nature.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Students at Portland’s East End Community School harvesting potatoes from the school garden for a special school lunch menu item.

Leeks are green and have a mild and sweet onion-like flavor, students at Riverton Elementary School in Portland learned last week.

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