There was a time when Christina Al Akhrass didn’t know she liked chickweed.
These days, though, the sixth-grader loves to eat it right out of the winter garden that she helps grow at Pikeville Elementary School.
She and other students have learned something important by growing vegetables.
“Not all food just comes from the store. You can make it at home and it’s healthier and fresher,” Christina said. “There’s a huge difference, and you can tell.”
Traci Tackett, the gifted education teacher for the Pikeville Independent school district, started a winter garden at Pikeville Elementary in fall 2013 to provide a project-based learning opportunity for students.
The garden has since grown to include six raised beds that have low tunnels with covers to pull over the plants when the temperature drops to 27 degrees or below.
There also is a strawberry patch, a small greenhouse, an area with plants for bees and other pollinators, and a composter.
Students in the gifted and talented program research what to plant and how. They tend the beds and pick the produce, and they recently designed rain barrels to use in watering the garden.
Taking part means having to miss one seventh-period class twice a week and making up the work later, but the students say it’s worth it.
“I wanted to learn something new,” said Rachel Bolden, 11.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to get to do a lot of things that you don’t get to do usually,” said Josh Varney, 12.
Tackett and students start the garden in August. It produces throughout the school year, including kale in September, turnips by the first of October, oriental greens in December and peas in the spring.
The students also have grown cabbage, broccoli, carrots and gourds.
“What was surprising to me was that there’s so many different plants that I’ve never heard of,” said Trey Hancock, 11.
The project has been a hit, and not just with the students who get their hands dirty.
The garden supplies produce to the lunchroom, which has been a popular treat with students, and the local Food City grocery has noticed increased sales of turnips in the winter, said Kelli Thompson, a project leader with the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, or KVEC.
KVEC is a consortium of 19 school districts in southeast Kentucky that was awarded a $30 million federal grant in 2013 for projects and training aimed at improving education.
One project of the consortium is called S.T.A.R.S., for Students Transforming Appalachia with Real-world Solutions.
The goal is to support student ideas for projects to help their communities. KVEC gave Tackett’s program a grant in 2014 for tools and other materials.
Some students have started gardens at home as a result of the project. One girl’s father built raised beds around their pool, and she later got chickens, Tackett said.
“Students from all grade levels are learning that they really like home-grown food,” Tackett said.
Tackett said the students connect with the project because it’s hands-on.
“They’re seeing it. They’re not just reading it from a book,” Tackett said.
The garden incorporates information from a range of subjects, requiring students to use science and math, collect data for charts and write reports. They did a blog and created training videos for others to use.
The project has even involved art students to paint a mural on a wall of the school overlooking the garden.
The garden at Pikeville Elementary is called STEAM’D Veggies — for science, technology, engineering, art and math.
“There’s just so much content that was embedded in this project,” Thompson said.
Thompson said she wanted to expand the garden project after seeing the impact.
She received a $2,500 grant and training through the Community Leadership Institute of Kentucky, including on how to gather data to document the impact of school gardens.
The institute provides training for community leaders in the state’s Appalachian counties aimed at improving health.
That was the link to the winter garden project, which helps students learn about healthy eating in a region with some of the highest rates of obesity and related diseases in the nation.
The students haven’t liked everything they’ve grown — mustard and swiss chard were not favorites with some — but much of it they have.
“If kids grow these foods, they want to try them, and the more they try them, the more they like them,” Tackett said.
Nancy E. Schoenberg, associate dean for research in the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky, who helps lead the CLIK program, said Thompson’s project was a good example of a grassroots idea to improve the health of young people and their families.
“Her project was so compelling to all of us,” Schoenberg said. “It hit so many different levels.”
Thompson helped expand winter-garden projects to Pike County Central High School, Leslie County High School and Middlesboro Elementary, though the gardens at Pike Central and Middlesboro were damaged by wind.
Tackett, who has trained other educators, said schools in Perry County also have winter gardens, and that she has heard interest from other districts as well.
Thompson said schools could get started with winter gardens for less than $100.
Now is the time to begin planning for next year, she said.
“We hope it’ll continue to grow,” Thompson said. “This could be sustainability in life.”