By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
They had to wear shades Tuesday afternoon when over a dozen people went out to a little spot of land at Central Elementary School.
There, a group of raised gardens, two of them filled with fresh soil and fertilizer, lay waiting for some small hands to dig into the Good Earth.
They were told to wear cool clothes, work gloves, put on some sunscreen and grab a hat, because it would be a sunny, hot, humid day.
And was it ever.
But the fruits of their labor will be well-noticed — and appreciated — by the harvest of vegetables that’s coming in the months ahead.
Tuesday was the kickoff for the “Panther Patch,” a Kentucky Farm to School project at the school in Barbourville. And from the looks of Erin Hammond, the groundbreaking was an event worth digging into.
“They’re planting tomatoes. They’re going to put the plants in two beds today. Then in the fall, we’ll harvest those tomatoes, and plant some cabbage and lettuce,” said Hammond, the program associate with the Spread the Health Appalachia in Knox County.
A Community Transformation Grant program funded by the CDC (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Spread the Health Appalachia is based on partnerships between health departments, schools, community organizations and local businesses in the region.
Lakin Daniels heads up the Farm to School projects in Knox County and three other counties in southeastern Kentucky.
With a blazing midday sun overhead, she said the program’s partnerships have firmly been planted.
“We’re in partnership with the Knox County Health Department in this county. We also have the help of the Bell County Health Department and the Cumberland Valley Health Department in Clay and Jackson counties,” Daniels said.
Together, they want to make strides by actions that help people understand the advantages of healthy eating and active living.
According to Spread the Health Appalachia, Kentucky’s Appalachian region has one of the highest rates of chronic disease in America. They noted over 30 percent of adults in the region are obese, while over 10 percent of adults have been diagnosed with diabetes.
Stating that both Type II diabetes and obesity are preventable,
Daniels mentioned one way to stem the tide is to make healthy food options readily available.
“This project is hands-on. The children not only learn about where the food they eat comes from, but it gets them outside. They get physical activity, and they get on their hands and knees to work out in the garden,” she added.
At Central Elementary School — part of the Knox County Public Schools district — the idea of having a garden with help from the students quickly got the green light.
“There were certain criteria the school had to meet, and Central Elementary was really eager to do this program. They were open to the idea, and a lot of parents and staff wanted to help out,” Hammond said while she and a group of volunteers waited for more help to arrive.
To complete the growing cycle, in-ground gardens will be planted for each grade at the school, grades K-5. They will be built in front of the school by the play center. In addition, a greenhouse will be built on some land adjacent to the school.
Minutes later, three youngsters made their way to the two raised gardens already filled for putting in the tomato plants.
Eight-year-old Sunni Ann Partin was the oldest of the trio. She adapted to putting her hands in the fertile ground immediately, as did her younger brother, 6-year-old Noah Partin. While the two did most of the digging, they got some help from 4-year-old Brady Napier, who had a big pitcher of water ready to give the tomato plants a good cool soaking.
Central Elementary Principal Kevin Disney was among the adults helping out with the grand moment. Organizers said numerous hours were spent preparing for the occasion. Now, he and the others helping out on the project look ahead to when the school will sow the harvest of good nutrition and more active lives.
“The goal of this entire program is about healthy eating. We have a whole curriculum on this, and when it’s all grown, we can serve the vegetables for lunch. The kids can talk about eating what they’ve grown, and it’s a better, healthier alternative to some of the things they sometimes eat,” Disney pointed out.
But in the excitement of that first day’s light work in the new garden, something seemed to be forgotten to all but just a few.
And that was the name of this new garden growing at Central Elementary.
Erin Hammond had the answer.
“The Panther Patch? That’s what the school wanted to call it. The school’s mascot is the panther. And since it’s an elementary school, the name fits the description,” she said.