Kid Stuff

Get Dirty

new youth gardening program sprouts in our backyard

Jenny Talen, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

SOMETHING HERE LOOKS KIND OF SEEDY. Delong Middle School students get down and dirty with some watermelon seeds at the school’s garden.
SOMETHING HERE LOOKS KIND OF SEEDY. Delong Middle School students get down and dirty with some watermelon seeds at the school’s garden.

As his graduation approached last May, Luke Chambers pondered his options. Nailing down the ideal job can be quite the challenge, but, fortunately, he landed on a great opportunity with the Americorps Vista. As a vista, Chambers was assigned to work alongside horticulture educator, Erin LaFaive of the UW-Extension in Altoona.

Almost immediately, Chambers began working on a program called the Youth Garden Program aimed to educate children on the benefits of nutrition. For the entire summer, Chambers worked with the children and now looks forward to working with the kids again for
another summer.

As a tech savvy sort of fella, he created a short promotional video about the program and his enthusiasm about the gardens led to a grant he is currently writing to help further improve the already well-established program.

“The Youth Gardens provide educational opportunities about plants and vegetables to youth in an environment that’s engaging, interactive, and fun,” said Chambers.

The Youth Garden Program isn’t one that sprang up recently, however. In fact, the program began 15 years ago as a partnership with the Hobart Parks Neighborhood and Eau Claire Parks and Recreation (and now partners with the Boys & Girls Club ad Headstart) to encourage kids to eat healthier.

Since its inception, the program has grown tremendously and currently consists of two neighborhood parks at North River Fronts and McDonough. Kids also spend some time at the Phoenix Community Gardens. Joy Weisner, an educator in the Wisconsin Nutrition Education Program, says last year’s program brought in 111 school-age children.

“They go to the garden and spend about 20 minutes in the garden and then they come up over to us in the pavilion. We wash up the vegetables and make a healthy snack,” said Weisner.

And boy do they make some great snacks. We’re not talking ants on a log; we’re talking spring rolls, salsa, and stir fry. Talk about some rocking healthy snacks! From broccoli, sweet potatoes, and green beans to pea pods, bok choy, and red peppers, saturated fats and unprocessed snacks don’t stand a chance.

“Kids should get involved because it’s something fun to do during the summer,” said Chambers. “It’s a structured program where you get to learn a lot. Not everyone gets to try all these different vegetables. You learn things about these vegetables that you wouldn’t otherwise know and different ways to cook them and different ways to eat them. Students I know even take these recipes home and make these for their families.”

In addition to some digging around in the dirt, kids learn about composting, sustainability, the environment, and get to engage in hands-on projects such as making bug puppets to learn about good and bad bugs.

This year’s program will begin June 19, from 9-10am, and will run through mid-August. The classes are held every Tuesday at the North River Fronts Garden, and every Wednesday at the McDonough Park.

Those wishing to help out with the gardening program can contact Erin LaFaive at 839-4712 or