MONROE — Students at Shady Grove Elementary School in Monroe will soon be growing their own fruits and vegetables as the groundwork for a new school garden nears completion.

The school project, called #GrowingGardens#GrowingMinds, is part of the LSU AgCenter Healthy Communities initiative, which brings together volunteers and community leaders to promote healthy lifestyle choices by connecting nutrition and fitness education with gardening.

Dvawn Maza, a special education teacher at the school and the garden project coordinator, said the project will provide a “living laboratory” for students to explore nature and enhance science skills.

The school partnered with AgCenter experts to establish a Healthy Communities work group that identified gardening, exercise and nutrition as educational priorities.

Shady Grove principal Jerlyn Bobo said she sees the garden as a way to enhance student achievement through teaching healthy lifestyles.

“Our motto is ‘healthy minds, healthy bodies,’ and if we can get students to experience healthier foods and learn how they are produced, it will help them in the classroom,” she said.

The healthy living outreach includes a series of nutrition classes and food demonstrations through SNAP-Ed and Happy Healthy Me education programs, along with fitness programs like 4-H Yoga for Kids classes.

“We want to help youth develop a love for healthful foods by preparing and tasting the fruits and vegetables they have harvested with their own hands,” AgCenter nutrition agent Cathy Agan said.

Looking for funding to promote more hands-on learning experiences, Maza teamed with AgCenter staff and the Northeast Louisiana Master Gardeners Association for technical and educational assistance to seek local support.

“The school sought funding from three grant sources, hoping to get one; but they were successful in obtaining all three,” Agan said.

A Lowe’s Toolbox for Education grant for nearly $5,000, combined with a $2,000 grant from the Whole Kids Foundation and a Junior League of Monroe mini grant of $500, will fund the purchase of garden supplies and materials to provide a raised garden bed for each classroom at the school.

The project includes growing vegetables and herbs, planting fruit trees and developing butterfly gardens, composting and recycling projects.

Each class will have a small greenhouse box to start seedlings indoors, Maza said, and plans include building a larger greenhouse on-site with garden furniture to create an outdoor classroom.

Hoping to win additional funding to sustain the garden project, the school 4-H Club has entered the Carton 2 Garden contest, a national campaign that focuses on creative and sustainable uses for repurposed milk and juice cartons.

“I expect to see bees and butterflies, the plants will bloom and grow, and we might even move them into the garden,” said James Blackson, a fourth-grade 4-H’er who helped with the contest entry.

For the contest, 4-H’ers up-cycled wooden pallets to build a garden structure and used more than 100 recycled milk and juice cartons to plant marigolds and make butterfly houses as a way to learn about recycling and the role of pollinators and study metamorphosis, Agan said.

Garden signs and decorations were made from recycled cartons and feature character education slogans like “Bee Kind, Bee Helpful and Bee Friendly” to target bullying, Maza said. Additional signs in the pollinator garden highlight science educational standards for teachers to tie in recycling, pollination and the food web.

“Not only does the project provide academic support, but it is also getting volunteers involved in our school,” Maza said.

“Ideally, we’d like to keep something growing year-round,” said AgCenter horticulturist Kerry Heafner.

Following an initial site assessment at the school, Heafner suggested building 12-foot-by-4-foot rectangular beds to allow students easy access for planting, weeding and harvesting throughout the year.

Heafner said the next step in the process is to kill the grass, turn the soil under and then fill each bed with a garden mix and soil amendments.

Kindergarten teacher Tracy Cargile said she is looking forward to the taste testing after the harvest and wants students to learn more about how their food is grown.

“Foods don’t just come from a can,” she said.

Other local community groups have teamed up to provide sustainability and support through extended learning experiences.

Matt’s Music of Monroe has donated wooden pallets for use in building compost bins.

Ouachita Green, a nonprofit community organization that teaches about recycling, has agreed to build the compost bins and provide recycling education.

Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge has pledged to help with the butterfly gardens and teach students about pollinators.

“As a committee in our Heathy Communities work group, we will develop a plan so each class can choose what they want to grow,” Bobo said.