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How One South Lake Tahoe School Got Kids To Love Salad

A South Lake Tahoe school is growing its own fresh and healthy food year-round. Reno Public Radio's Amy Westervelt lined up at their salad bar to find out more.

If there's one food you wouldn't expect first graders to be excited about, it's salad. But here at Sierra House Elementary, a public elementary school in South Lake, the weekly salad bar is a popular addition to school lunch because the kids are growing their own lettuce.

"Today we're gonna go out to the domes, but first I have some questions and we're going to go over some things. Who knows what the word botany means? Who remembers?"

That's Michelle McLean, who runs the garden program at the school. McLean started out as parent volunteer a few years ago. Then she saw an advertisement for the Tahoe Food Hub's growing dome, in Truckee. A master gardener, McLean thought the geodesic greenhouse, specially designed for use in the snow, looked really cool. So she drove over to tour it, and decided South Lake needed its own dome.

Sierra House Principal Ryan Galles was all for it ... if they could raise enough money. Sixty-six percent of the kids at Sierra House are on the free and reduced lunch program, and the school didn't have extra funds lying around for a garden program. But the idea fit well with the school's overall focus on health and fitness.

"We really didn't think we'd be able to do it, but then the Soroptimist Club was the first to put their money where their mouth was and they gave us a grant of $25,000 to buy the structures. That made it real and then more donations started rolling in."

Since then the school has raised another $100,000, letting them add a pollinator garden, six outdoor garden boxes, and two sierra growing domes. Designed by Colorado-based Growing Spaces, one of the domes even contains an aquaponic garden where fish provide nutrients to plants and vice versa.

"They are so much healthier, and I see them making better food choices. It makes the vocabulary words real, too and a big common core thing is life cycle and with this they can see the whole life cycle of a plant."

That's Denise Pillsbury, a 2nd-grade teacher at the school. She says regular trips to the domes help to keep the kids calm throughout the day. But the kids in her class? They just like the plants. 

"I'm Sophie. I like the mint. It tastes good and it looks good and I just like it."

"I'm Tristan. I like the rosemary. It smells good."

"Yeah, the rosemary smells good! But it doesn't taste good."

"I like the chives! And the fish!"

At lunch, a good 90% of the school's first graders voluntarily eat lettuce ... and blow my mind. McClean says you can see the difference with the kids who have had the dome classes since they started school. They opt for way more vegetables at lunchtime.

The program is having a benefit on the community as well.

"I'm Hector Ochoa, I work with the University of California extension's nutrition program and with Cal Fresh."

Ochoa either consults on or runs various nutrition programs throughout South Lake, at schools and also at the Family Resource Center.

"We do cooking classes too. The big thing right now is kale and people want to know what to do with it."

Because they just look cool -- with their shiny, geometric exteriors -- the Sierra House growing domes have brought both parents and community members into the school's garden program.  Here's Principal Ryan Galles again.

"This has had a bigger impact on parent involvement than anything I've seen in the 8 years since I've been here. Parents are regularly involved in either health or nutrition or literacy classes in the domes."

McLean is getting ready now to plant the school's pollinator garden for the spring, and hopes to start incorporating more cooking classes. Several other Tahoe Basin schools, including those in Truckee and a few in South Lake, are also looking into getting their own domes.  

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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