Sisters and students reap veggies, relationships and respect for the Earth

Categories: Around the Diocese

Nov. 22, 2013, edition
By Nikki Rajala
Photos by Bill Vossler

This summer the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls and Little Falls High School forged a new partnership — with Franciscan guidance, students organically grew and harvested vegetables in the nearby Franciscan gardens.

The produce has already nourished many — the Franciscan sisters and students and staff in five district schools.

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Franciscan Sister Ruth Lentner, above right, demonstrates the finer points of harvesting onions to Little Falls High School students Christy Mason, left, and Savanna Slettom. Their class in Introduction to Natural Resources harvested vegetables throughout the fall at the garden at St. Francis Convent in Little Falls.

Now these “gifts from the earth” will appear on the community-wide Thanksgiving dinner menu.

“Pairing with St. Francis Convent was win-win,” said Stephen Jones, Little Falls Community Schools superintendent. “The whole community has great pride in the partnership with the convent. ‘Community’ is in our name ‘Little Falls Community Schools’ and we want our school to reflect the values of the community.”

In its beginnings

Jones’ previous experience with the Sibley East School District’s successful school garden program, now in its fourth year, allowed Little Falls High School teacher Doug Ploof to witness how a school garden could invigorate a community.

They started applying for grants. When they received one — a High School Vegetable Garden-to-Cafeteria program grant from Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council — they met with the Franciscans to explore the possibilities of a partnership in 2102, Jones said.

Ploof, teacher of Introduction to Natural Resources, had worked with Franciscan Sister Ruth Lentner previously.

“Our students needed gardening experience to understand horticulture,” Ploof said. “Their gardens were near the school — it was easy to share space.”

Planting in Franciscan soil

Sister Ruth has been the main worker of their half-acre garden in past years.

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Destiny Young carefully places onions in a wheelbarrow.

“I didn’t think I could keep on without additional help in the garden that feeds our sisters,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh God, I need help!’ And God heard me. From Doug Ploof, I learned the superintendent wanted to garden with kids. I knew that was the path that should be taken.”

Through her North Dakota State University horticulture degree, she knew how to grow vegetables in an organic, sustainable way and to make the soil produce the way it should.

This project, hiring students for summer tasks, tripled the garden size.

“The kids who worked over the summer and their adult supervisor had no experience with gardening,” Sister Ruth said. “But they were enthused. I figured out what to plant, how much, what needed to be done and how to teach them. We pulled lots of vegetables out of the garden.

“They had a real experience of who we are,” she said. “That interplay was wonderful. The longer we worked, the more we could laugh and tease. The kids were probably surprised they could work with someone much older and enjoy it — and learn something.”

Working with the young people also provided an opportunity for them to share their Franciscan values. Students noticed the Franciscan environment, Sister Ruth said. “They picked up our spirit, saying, ‘This place is really peaceful.’ ”

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Noah Jendro hurries back with his empty wheelbarrow for another load of onions.

“St. Francis is saint of creation and of the Earth,” she said. “Teaching people to be respectful of and caring for the Earth is loving. Franciscan theology says all of the Earth is in the image of God, who made it.”

Summer gardener 

Wesley La Coursiere, in 11th grade at Little Falls High School, was one of five students who tended the vegetables over the summer. Like the garden, he thrived.

“I had no previous gardening experience. Working there was great — the summer was the most fun one I’ve had. I’d love to do this again.”

The teens put in three to four hours daily, Wesley said. “Weeding especially took lots of work because no pesticides were used. But it got easier.”

He was also pleased to see the “fruits” of their efforts on the lunch menu.

“At school it was exciting to see the foods we grew,” Wesley said. “I knew where the apples or squash or beans came from — they were the work of our hands — and tasted really good in comparison. The vegetables were as fresh as they get.”

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Stephen Jones

In September and October, Ploof’s class arrived weekly to help harvest, getting the frost-susceptible foods out first, and later the squashes, cabbages and potatoes.

“Most became really hard workers who continued to show responsibility throughout the experience,” Ploof said. “I was impressed that they actually worked harder each week as they felt more involved and took ownership of the garden.”

Two ninth graders in the class, Savanna Slettom and Tyler Schlattman, assisted in the weekly harvest. Neither had gardened before.

“I learned to be careful pulling onions,” Savanna said, “because they bruise.”

“It was fun to help Sister Ruth and the Franciscans,” Tyler said, “and new to help others this way.”

Both liked seeing “their” vegetables on the school menu. Sometimes, when devouring grapes or beans in the garden, students discovered how tasty fresh-picked organic foods could be. And they tried new ones, like tomatillos.

“I asked kids how many had eaten beets — only two of the 20 had,” Sister Ruth said. “Many crops haven’t been tried because their parents didn’t eat them, so a whole generation has missed this. Our project has expanded their tastes.”

She was pleased with the outcome — the Franciscan sisters received one-third of the produce, and the school two-thirds.

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Tyler Schlattman pauses with a handful of onions that his class harvested at the Franciscan-Little Falls High School partnership garden.

“Close to five-and-a-half tons of produce was grown organically on one-and-a-half acres of sandy loam soil,” she said.

A hit at lunch time

“The fresh foods, like the salsa, were a hit,” Sandy Stuckey said. “Kids were excited to eat the fresh produce. They noticed the difference in taste and quality.”

Stuckey, as food service director, creates menus for more than 1,000 students across five schools. Using “fresh out of the garden” signs, she identified the newly-harvested vegetables, placing them on all meal lines.

“We pickled some cucumbers and roasted summer squashes and zucchini, serving them with an olive oil blend. Beets will be roasted, while rutabagas will be cut into sticks and served on the salad lines.

“This project was a wonderful way to introduce kids to new foods,” Stuckey said. “To involve them full-circle — in planning, planting, harvesting and menu creation — is a valuable lesson.”

“Preparing vegetables is a life skill,” said Superintendent Jones. “We want our FACS teachers to be able to run with this.”Julie Slettom, teacher of family and consumer science, said two classes used the produce.

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Morgan St. Onge (left) and Nicole Meyer struggle to heft the grapes they’ve just picked.

“The International Foods class prepared fresh salsa — for the main food line and the taco bar,” Slettom said, “with our school cooks supervising on food safety procedures.”

In November, the Foods 2 class will do a full turkey dinner, which, she hopes, will include potatoes and sweet potatoes from the garden.

“Plans are in the works for something new,” Slettom said. “Our students will help with the community’s Thanksgiving dinner — with potatoes and squash. And we are baking the pumpkins, pureeing the pulp and making pumpkin pies too!”

Exceeding expectations

The project is a resounding success. One success is in food choices — the general public is concerned about kids’ unhealthy choices, Jones noted. But in Little Falls they’ve experienced the opposite.

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Wesley La Coursier

“Lots of people believed young children wouldn’t eat salads,” Jones said. “But now salads are 20 to 30 percent of the meal choices our kids make. We have salad bars in all schools, not just older levels.

“We don’t give kids enough credit,” he said. “They are changing their parents’ habits. After they’ve eaten fresh vegetables at school, they urge their parents to buy those foods.”

“The project has exceeded our expectations — more than 6,600 pounds of vegetables have found their way into the school dining program — and in creating excitement,” Jones said. “We’re happy the school is leading a project that reflects our community’s priorities.”

(The Community Thanksgiving Day Dinner, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 28 in the Little Falls High School Commons, is open to the public and asks a free will donation.)

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Taylor Czech empties a bucket of beets into the wagon while Ben Hegna, McKayla Schulke and Amanda Lange continue the harvesting.