Blooming community

Connie White’s ‘secret garden’ grows health in more ways than food

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Turning a parking lot into a “secret garden” is first-grade teacher Connie White’s dream come true. And now it’s bearing the fruit of a statewide STEAM organic farming movement. Grafted with fellow educators, organic farmers, grantors and federal funding over the years, Enos Garcia Elementary pre-schoolers through fifth-graders are learning science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — and eating organic to boot. 

“They’re asking for kale!” White said this past January, wide-eyed and smiling about the reactions of her tiny student farmers to the produce from their gardens. “They ask, ‘Can we make kale shakes today?’ It’s just so wonderful.” 

White has been key to getting kids into gardening by helping to develop two school gardens at Enos Garcia Elementary School; One nearly invisible Secret Garden in 2006, located behind the first-grade wing of the former Taos Elementary School, and the Parr Field garden since 2012, visible from Camino de la Placita, next to Taos Public Library. The latter was developed two years later in collaboration with the Farmhouse School Lunch Program in 2014. Because of her love for both her students and the gardens through the years, White’s students learn to raise and eat organic food.

“The kids are being taught math and language arts, reading, social skills, science and they’re loving it,” White said.

An elementary teacher in Taos for the last 25 years, White’s heartfelt belief that healthy food grows healthy kids and community took root and spread. During the early 2000s, Taos Elementary and Enos Garcia Elementary schools merged into one campus, thus forsaking former teacher Bonnie Bonneau’s 11-year Early Childhood Garden project that was sold with the other campus.

White looked at the rocky, empty plot behind the new first-grade wing at Enos Garcia Elementary and envisioned a “secret garden,” and from that tiny seed an oak of community land stewardship and organic farming sprouted. In 2006, White wrote a youth garden grant application detailing that Early Childhood staff, students and more were interested in transforming the plot into an outdoor classroom, garden and quiet area.

Over the years, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps students have helped kindergarten and first-grade classes with brainstorming, map-making, building and planting the gardens. Everyone from pre-schoolers to parents and grandparents, teachers, volunteers and master gardeners ultimately transplanted perennials, herbs and flowers from the former garden and created two new gardens, while also growing indoor classroom starts to transplant into the gardens each year. Volunteers helped students develop and maintain roof-water catchment barrels and drip systems to help irrigate.

“Our students harvest seeds from the garden boxes, make seed packets and take the seeds home to plant family gardens,” White said, noting too, that their fresh local produce comes to Taos school lunches and salad bars.

“This helps the kids to understand that all living things need clean air, water, sun and care — all seeds to plant in our students’ minds now,” she said, adding that the students plan, plant, care for and harvest the same 10 raised beds created in 2006 and 2012.

Local businesses that have made in-kind donations over the years include Ace Hardware, Farmhouse Café, Petree’s Nursery, Randall Lumber, Chamisa Feeds, Cedar Y Ranch, Walmart and Blossoms (now closed). 

White said Micah Roseberry, local Farmhouse Café & Bakery owner, organic gardening specialist and former Taos Waldorf School founder is particularly instrumental in the whole “Local Food for Local Kids” emphasis. Nikki Cain is a former Taos Waldorf school educator hired by Roseberry as the educational coordinator of Growing Community Now, a pilot program by White, Roseberry and Cain providing local, organic meals to over 600 students in Taos day care and elementary schools. 

“Growing Community Now has been well-received within the school community, as well as the by the kids and parents,” Cain said about the program she joined in 2016, “because the kids are having such a good time.” Besides Enos Garcia kids, Cain said the program also provides local, organic food to Taos International School and Taos Integrated School of the Arts. Over the years, community collaborations have included the University of New Mexico-Taos Kids Campus and TWIRL Play Space.

Growing Community Now presents an annual Harvest Festival at Enos Garcia Elementary School, open to all the schools and community of Taos. Every afternoon Cain teaches Enos Garcia Kindergarten through second-graders about healthy food. She also teaches an after-school enrichment class every Thursday to Enos Garcia third, fourth and fifth grades, as well as holding a school-wide Tasting Event every Wednesday in the cafeteria, all of which “helps to keep the whole school involved,” she said.

“Connie is so amazing,” Cain said. “I’m lucky to have gotten to work really closely with her. She’s so dedicated to having these experiences available to the kids and the whole community.”

“I’m just blessed that these two women have made it blossom into all this,” White said with a faraway look in her eyes, reviewing no doubt, all that has transpired in the last 12 to 15 years of her dedicated involvement. “The kids are learning all about our land and how to be sustainable and grow their own food. Micah and Nikki are really the ones to get the credit.”

Roseberry appreciates the praise, but turned it back to White, stressing it was “Connie’s huge effect on getting everything started.” 

Having recently acquired funding from the Lor and Thornburg foundations, White, Roseberry and Cain are expanding Growing Community Now through education and a strategic planning process that includes local organizations, the Not Forgotten Outreach veterans-in-agriculture organization and the Taos County Economic Development Corporation, which has certified kitchen facilities. 

“We are looking forward to a year of collaboration around the goals of feeding children local healthy food and helping more farmers get active to support the Local Foods For Local Kids program,” Roseberry said about TCEDC’s new participation in the organic food program.

Besides funding from Taos Municipal Schools over the years and Albuquerque Community Foundation in 2012, White has gotten yearly grants from Taos Community Foundation, among others. With her involvement, Enos Garcia Elementary School also partnered with Explora Science Museum for Family Nights and First Grade Field Trips.

Some of the suppliers of organic foods to the schools include Thunder Bird Cattle Company of Taos Pueblo; White Mountain Farm of Taos; West’s Best of Jarisco, Colorado; Taos Village Farm; Cerro Vista Farms of Cerro, New Mexico; Moriarty Farm of Moriarty, New Mexico; Organic Valley Milk of Denver, Colorado; and Mary’s Organic Chicken of New Mexico.

“The garden is a special place to our students and staff,” White concludes in a 2012 grant application. “It is a place of solitude where eyes and magnifying glasses are observing, exploring; caring hands are touching the soil, watering, finding insects, picking food; mouths are tasting, noses are smelling and sometimes we just find a special place out there to quiet our bodies and minds and be OK with doing nothing but listening to the life in the garden.”

For more information about White, Roseberry and Cain’s Growing Community Now program, see growingcommunitynow.org or email conwhi@taosschools.org.

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