It was a Tuesday, and Lake View Elementary's Green Team roamed through the cafeteria after eating their own lunch, begging fellow students to contribute their orange peels, apple cores and leftover carrots. They were hunting for compost, and the slim pickings they gathered came mainly from students who brought lunch from home, because many of the items in that day's school lunch -- spaghetti with meat sauce and milk, for example -- aren't compost-friendly.

"Tuesday was a good day because the school lunch had oranges," said Sydney Walter, a fourth-grader who organizes the composting effort. She even comes over to the north side school during summer vacation to stir the compost.

Lake View student senators are in their third year of gathering vegetable waste to create valuable organic material for their school's flower garden. Students and staff have walked down to nearby Warner Park on Earth Day every year for more than a decade to clean the park, but a few years ago, the Student Senate decided to do more at the school itself, and the composting effort was born.

Although small-scale, their efforts are part of a much larger movement to cut down on landfill waste and to embrace the value of locally grown foods. Even the Obama family has announced that they plan to start a garden on the South Lawn of the White House and involve local schoolchildren in the effort. In Madison, gardens and compost efforts have sprung up at a number of city schools in recent years, but a new project could expand that number by creating a template that's been missing for starting and maintaining such projects.

Parents and staff have been the driving force in most of the early efforts.

Rachel Martin, who has a child at near west side Midvale Elementary School, and Nancy Gutknecht, whose child has moved on to higher grades, started a community garden in 2006 and launched a school garden next to it the following year.

Money raised from community gardeners, who rent 26 plots, helps fund the school garden. All together, it comprises about 7,000 square feet, about half school and half community. It hasn't been easy, even with the donations and advice of several community organizations and businesses. Cindy Terrill, the school social worker who chairs a garden committee, said it takes a tremendous amount of work to clear weeds without pesticides and to till the soil, for instance.

The school garden has special features such as a colorfully decorated bathtub where flowers are planted and a popular scarecrow made by children with some help from teachers. The youngsters plant lettuce, spinach and other produce in specified areas away from towering plants such as corn and sunflowers that could block the sun. Teepee stick structures encourage string beans and morning glories to climb.

Others have helped, too.

Neighbor Paul Haskew built a storage shed with recycled barn wood on the exterior, and a living roof will be planted atop the shed this spring. Moreover, AmeriCorps worker Kelly McClurg hopes to launch a lunchroom composting effort at Midvale by Earth Day on April 22.

At Lake View, the flower garden had been going for four years before students took the lead on composting. They raised money to buy a compost bin, and the Green Team collects compostable foods at lunchtime to put in the bin.

"They are developing their critical thinking around sustainability," said teacher Susan Hobart, who advises the three dozen young senators. "They are taking a survey to find out what lunches people do like, in order to prevent leftover food that goes in the garbage, and data will be taken to the superintendent of schools when that is finished."

Green Teamers give up the recess that follows lunchtime to collect the fruit and vegetables that can be composted.

"It's important to not waste food that could turn into soil," said fourth-grader Sophie Klimowicz.

"If we just threw food away, it would be a waste," agreed fifth-grader Sophie Blair. "And we can help things grow in the summer garden."

Martin said a key concern for her and others was to keep their project going for the long-term, because school gardens sometimes struggle after the founders' children move on to other schools. They also wanted to help others start their own gardens, so they are now working with Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens on the north side in a pilot project that will support five existing school gardens and hopefully spread to other schools.

"Our goal is that every child in Madison who wants a garden can have one nearby," said Nathan Larson, education director at Community GroundWorks, and program organizers also hope to develop a lunchroom composting program that could be used by various schools.

The pilot project -- which will involve east side Allis, Glendale, Hawthorne and Lindbergh schools as well as Midvale -- evolved from a Community GroundWorks youth gardening program, in which about 700 young people from schools and community centers come to the Kids' Garden on Troy Drive each year to learn about gardening. By helping with the garden, the children begin to appreciate nature and healthy, homegrown vegetables.

"They find out where their food comes from," Larson said.

Part of the pilot project will involve Gutknecht, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who will work with GroundWorks to conduct focus groups at the five schools to learn the challenges school gardens face and what works for them. Larson plans to teach a professional development course this summer at Troy Gardens for teachers and community center staff as well as other gardeners. (For information, he can be reached at 240-0409.) The group is also developing a garden-based curriculum to share with the schools, Larson said. He wants to include educational activities about environmentally friendly practices such as gardening, recycling, harvesting rain water and planting native perennials.

The link provided by GroundWorks would provide needed advice and assistance for gardens at individual schools, as well as sharing information and resources among schools, Martin said. Currently, school gardeners have no central information source, such as a Web page, to find what other schools are doing.

"There is not a whole lot of support or guidance from the top of the Madison School District regarding gardens and composting," Martin said, echoing a sentiment that others also expressed.

District officials say they aren't opposed to either gardens or composting, but add that they have many limitations to contend with.

When it comes to composting, they say health department guidelines on keeping meat, dairy and cooked food scraps out of compost bins means that staff would have to spend a great deal of time sorting through school lunches to set aside the small percentage of each one that would qualify for composting. And then there's the time it takes to maintain the bins to make sure they are free of rats and other vermin.

"It has to be a classroom project," said Doug Pearson, director of building services for the school district.

As for gardens, Assistant Superintendent Sue Abplanalp said her main concern is the possibility that school gardens could be abandoned, creating an appearance of overall neglect. GroundWorks leaders say they would restore gardens that go unused for two years, however, and Abplanalp is working with the group in its efforts to broaden the school gardening movement. She met with them last year and the five-school pilot project came from those discussions.

"Once they get all the information from the focus groups, we will meet again and decide where we want to go," Abplanalp said. "This is a pilot program to take the kinks out of planning. Bringing together some centralized process for gardens would be a good thing, but this is a work in progress."

Anita Weier Correspondent for The Capital Times - 3/23/2009 12:01 pm

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