Boo-tiful gardens from Sepulveda Elementary School

October may be about Halloween trick-or-treating and bulging bags of candy for many kids, but for some it’s still about the seasonal harvest.

At Jose A. Sepulveda Elementary School in Santa Ana, California, it’s a chance to bring together both — a Halloween theme with a garden focus.

Two years ago, the school converted an unused area of the campus into a Teaching Garden, where students learn more about where their food comes from, nutrition and other healthy lifestyle. Teachers also use the garden as a science center, learning about animal and plant life cycles.

There teachers have hosted a Boo-Tiful Garden, where children held wriggling worms and learned about how the creatures assist in composting by creating nutrients in the soil that help plants grow.

They made estimates on the number of seeds in a pumpkin and studied the decomposition process as a pumpkin completed the growth cycle, reseeding itself to produce a small plant months later.

Students, also, harvested vegetables that could be used in a dip taste-test, including fast-growing radishes, a favorite for teaching gardens whose audience can sometimes be impatient.

“Kids think of food as coming from a grocery store,” said Kim Orozco, a Kindergarten teacher and school champion for the program. “This is about making the connection that there’s care involved in getting our food.”

Studies have shown children aren’t getting enough fruits and vegetables in their diets, with fewer than one in 10 high school students getting the recommended daily servings. French fries are the most common source of vegetable consumed by children.

At Sepulveda, the Teaching Gardens program helps to broaden the palates of students, many of whom have not been exposed to some of the produce grown in the garden.

“It’s about healthy eating and trying new foods,” Orozco said. “We always tell them that if they like something they could help their mom find it in the store and get their brothers and sisters or mom and dad to try something new.”

For example, the garden at Sepulveda includes three types of mint, not just the spearmint many students are familiar with at home.

“It just opens their eyes to other things you can experience,” Orozco said. “It takes away the fear of trying things or not liking things. I tell them it’s okay if you don’t’ like it, but it’s good that you tried.”

Fifth graders participated in the garden club met once a week to plant and care for the garden and keep journals about how the garden was progressing. They planted a variety of herbs, then added them to tomato sauce to see how they would change the flavor.

Rachel Johnson, Ph.D, R.D., professor of nutrition for the University of Vermont and an American Heart Association spokeswoman, said giving kids a chance to try new things is important for developing healthy eating habits in the future.

“Exposure to new foods leads to preference for those foods,” Johnson said. “It can take up to 12 to 15The Teaching Gardens sign at Sepulveda Elementary School exposures to a new food to develop a preference for the food. Thus, continued exposure to healthy foods like vegetables grown in school gardens can help children learn to like those foods.”

Johnson said putting the focus on harvest and other fall activities is a great way to take emphasis of candy around Halloween.

“Go apple picking as a family,” she suggested. “Carve pumpkins and roast the pumpkin seeds. Walk or bike around the neighborhood to look at the harvest decorations. Plan a spooky adventure for your kids and their friends.”

California’s drought was hard on Sepulveda’s Teaching Garden, with many plants dying over the summer. Orozco and her students replanted, but a new version of last year’s Boo-Tiful Garden wasn’t possible. They will have to wait until after Thanksgiving for this year’s harvest celebration.

With a later harvest calendar, Orozco is planning on referencing the classic children’s tale, Stone Soup, in which a stranger tricks a village into offering vegetables and other traditional ingredients to add to a soup he starts using a rock.

Students will be invited to each add an ingredient from home to supplement vegetables and herbs harvested from the garden to make their own “stone” soup.

“We want it to become a community project,” Orozco said.