PITTSBURG -- Minds are not the only thing growing at Willow Cove Elementary. So too are vegetables in a garden being tended by second-grade students.
The tiny school garden is part of the Pittsburg Unified School District's Farm to School program, which aims to have more of the produce served in school cafeterias come from local growers and from fruits and vegetables grown in school gardens planted by students.
The district recently got a $100,000 boost to help grow its program, thanks to a grant program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is supporting such voluntary efforts of school districts across the country. The grant was one of only two given out to Bay Area schools in November. Oakland Unified got a $100,000 grant for projects that include a new lunch program that highlights California-grown produce and grains.
Nationwide, 71 projects across 42 states received grant funds through the USDA's Farm to School program.
Beside supporting school gardens, Pittsburg Unified plans to use the grant money to create a "food hub," which will allow it to buy fruits and vegetables directly from local growers instead of going through a distributor. Having a hub also will make it possible for locally grown fruits and vegetables to be purchased directly by other school districts in Contra Costa.
"We are going to support local farmers. We want to support our economy, right here in East County," said Matt Belasco, the district's director of child nutrition.
The grant money will help establish gardens at Rancho Medanos Junior High and Pittburg High School. Black Diamond, an alternative high school, already has a thriving garden on its campus and plans are in the works for it to start selling the produce to the district.
At the garden at Willow Cove, carrots, beats, peas, snap peas and lettuce were planted in the fall by 23 students in the classroom of teacher Elba Ramirez, but only the carrots thrived. Too little water was the problem, students said as they stood around the garden.
"Sometimes they don't grow and sometimes they grow. They need air, sun and water," said 7-year-old Amaya Leta-Pombo.
The recent cold snap froze the peas, but it was actually good for the carrots. "The carrots are doing very fine," said Suri Gaxiola, who is also 7.
The students are looking forward to eating the carrots when they are harvested early next year and used in the salad bar when school lunch is served.
"I think they will taste more better," Amaya said.
Ramirez said this was the first year that vegetables were grown at the school.
"It creates community and also provides them with real-world experience," she said. "It's a nice learning experience. I think they will be more ready for it next time."
Having sustainable gardens on school grounds makes it possible for the produce be harvested, sold to the district and used in the salad bar that is provided when lunch is served in the cafeteria. "It allows (the school site) to reinvest in next year's crop so it is sustainable," Belasco said.
It also encourage student to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.
"Students that participate in growing fruits and veggies are often more likely to try them as they are excited and have ownership of these items," he said.
Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.