Echo Canyon Elementary has long been known for its student gardens, chef program and overall hands-on learning experiences. When COVID hit and social distancing practices took effect, everything changed. However, the team of school leaders working in conjunction with their chef and gardening partners found a way to think ‘outside the box’ and continue to put education first.
Throughout the pandemic, Echo Canyon has had to restrict who enters the campus, which means they can’t have people visit, like the contributing gardeners and chefs who usually are part of their educational programs. They have also banned the sharing of gardening tools and materials. In short, school officials recognized that, for the time being, they wouldn’t be able to run their garden and chef programs as initially planned.
“We have a wonderful partnership with the Blue Watermelon Foundation,” Principal Kat Hughes said. “They’ve worked tirelessly brainstorming ways to keep our gardening and our chef in the garden programs alive for our students.”
Established by local chef and restaurateur Charleen Badman, the Blue Watermelon’s mission is to foster healthier eating habits in kids.
“The Blue Watermelon’s solution was grow boxes,” Hughes said. The boxes contain materials to grow food and a corresponding recipe to cook a small dish.
Each grow box has a theme that determines the seeds included. Some recent packs included chickpeas with a recipe for making pancakes, while another box contained the “three sisters,” a mixture of squash, beans and corn.
“We’ve given grow boxes to our special needs kids as well as preschool, first, third and fifth graders,” Hughes said. “Our goal is for kids in each grade level to have a grow box to take home so they can engage in gardening and cooking with their families.”
Teachers are also weaving gardening and cooking into their curriculum, and in the classroom, students have shown off photos of their finished recipes. Leading Phoenix chefs are creating YouTube videos to accompany the recipes. The hope is that families will watch the videos together and, sharing in an activity, they’ll prepare healthier food.
“We are so appreciative of the community partnership we have with the Blue Watermelon Project, which is overseen by Chef Badman,” Hughes said. “Through all of this, they’ve kept Echo at the forefront of their mind and worked hard to help us to maintain the great accomplishments we’ve made.”
In the future, the school wants to incorporate specific vocabulary words that relate to their gardening and chef initiatives. They see each box as a learning opportunity for students, their families and teachers.
“Grow boxes have helped us to keep our philosophy of hands-on learning alive, which is at the heart of what we do,” Hughes said. “I like to say that thinking outside the box put us in the box.”