On a sunny fall morning in October, members of the third grade class at St. Francis International School in Silver Spring stepped outside of their classroom, like they do every Wednesday, to plant lettuce in their school garden.

For about three years, Alan Magan, a farmer, secular Franciscan, and St. Camillus parishioner who lives in Howard County, has volunteered to teach the third graders about gardening every Wednesday morning. The students help Magan, whom they call “Farmer Alan,” to tend to the garden, which produces lettuce, kale, chard, and other vegetables that that are later served as a part of the school’s lunch program.

“We don’t always make the connection between dirt and plants and what we are putting in our mouths,” said Toby Harkleroad, the principal of the school. Through the school’s nutrition program, they are hoping to help their students make that connection.

The students learn about science along the way, such as how weeds can take water and sunlight away from plants, and how the plants need energy from the sun, nutrients from the soil, water and carbon dioxide in order to grow correctly. They are also trying to expand the learning experience into other grade levels, with the second graders planting tulip bulbs and the fourth graders taking field trips to a farm and to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Fifth graders Joseph Cidade-Harkleroad and Kayla Hayes reflected on their experience with the garden, saying they enjoyed the indoor gardening over the winter, where they planted seeds under UV lights so they would stay warm and be planted as seedlings in the spring.

Fourth grader Hector Mendoza said his favorite thing about gardening was touching the worms.

“It is amazing how they scream when they first see worms…eventually they adopt them,” said Farmer Alan, noting that he grew up around gardens, and his own kids always loved to garden, so “this is just a way to share it.”

While the class was outside, Harkleroad asked them what they knew about the school’s patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi. Several students brought up his love for animals, and one student chimed in, “He loved everything that God made.”

Agreeing, Harkleroad noted, “the power and beauty of those things allowed him to remember that God is great…our wonderful and powerful God is all around us and loves not just us, but everything in nature.”

Similarly, he referenced Jesus’s teaching about wildflowers and birds of the air, asking the students, “Do those flowers worry whether they will be taken care of tomorrow? Do those birds worry if they will be rich and famous tomorrow?” to which the students responded, “No!”

“We can find lessons about our relationship with God in nature,” Harkleroad explained.

Farmer Alan reflected on how soil, water, sunlight, and plants are all a part of “the web of life.”

“When you eat a salad, you become a part of that web,” he said. “It’s important to show them how that web works for them.”

And for the students, that web is extended from the garden into the school’s newly-renovated Camillia Room, which serves many purposes, including as a cafeteria. St. Camillus Parish and St. Francis International School, which used to be the parish school, are celebrating 65 years at their current site in 2019. Leading up to that anniversary, the parish and school has been raising money to help with the renovation of the Camillia Room, which has been at the heart of the community since its beginning.

That fundraising, in addition to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Maryland’s Aging Schools Grant, has allowed them to purchase new electric food service carts, redo the flooring, add storage space to the room, and install LED dimmable lighting.

In the kitchen, they were able to get a new stove, new ovens, a new fridge and freezer, and new walk-in refrigerators and freezers. The new space allows them to increase the amount of perishable food they can store and ultimately feed to their students, more than half of whom receive free or reduced price lunch. In addition to lunch, each day the school gives out free breakfast to every student as a part of the federal nutrition program. Over the summer, they also serve free breakfast and lunch for five weeks to any school-age children who are hungry.

The school makes an effort to be mindful of the amount of calories and fats they are serving, and to serve the students a mix of different colored vegetables. In order to help the students understand their balanced diet, they have plates with different sections for different types of food, and they have a sign in the cafeteria that lists what is being served that day under different categories such as grains, meat, fruits, vegetables, and milk. After the lettuce from the garden is fully grown, the students cut it from the garden, and ultimately eat it as a part of their salads.

Rafael Visoso, the nutrition program director at the school, said he thinks if students see the food in the garden and know they had a part in growing it, they are more likely to try it. And several students did say they had tried things there that they had not tried at home, like kale. Visoso hopes that as they get older, they will continue the nutrition habits they are learning at the school.

“Maybe it will be the only meal the kids have, so we want to make sure they get something healthy,” he said, adding that by ensuring that the kids are not going hungry, “We are doing our part” in ensuring that they are able to focus in the classroom.

“Eating the food that we actually grew was terrific,” said fourth grader Bethel Yosef. “Even though I don’t have a garden at home, its really fun having a garden at school.”