DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Betty Gearen, coordinator of AINA in the Schools, clears weeds with students at Waialae Elementary School. The garden has parents, teachers and students preparing for spring planting as part of the AINA in the Schools program. The acronym means "Actively Integrate Nutrition and Agriculture."
AINA makes a school subject out of gardening
The program merges agriculture and good nutrition for students
A kindergartner pulled a carrot out of the soil and asked, "What is this?"
He could not make a connection between the carrot in his hand and the orange cubes in a frozen mix of peas and carrots.
"That's kind of scary, that kids these days have never tasted or seen" a fresh carrot and think food comes from the supermarket, says Betty Gearen, co-director of a new program called AINA in the Schools.
The Kokua Hawaii Foundation originated the AINA program, whose name means "land" in Hawaiian, and also is the acronym for its mission: Actively Integrate Nutrition and Agriculture in Schools. The program is now in effect at Waialae Charter and Sunset and Aikahi Elementary schools for the second year.
The AINA program has turned the garden into a classroom for 200 or so kids at Waialae. "They just love us -- they give us hugs" when they see Gearen and her helpers coming for bimonthly lessons, she said.
Their fascination with the cycles of life and the importance of growing things is amazing to her, and she is impressed at how much the students retain.
According to parent Stacy Hirano, who volunteers with the gardening, the kids get so excited when it is time to harvest that they "want to eat the carrots right out of the soil. The teachers have to tell them to wait till they can rinse them first. Then they get to eat them with dip."
Gearen added, "You'll be surprised how they just gobble it down because they grew it and the foods tastes so fresh. ... It's so rewarding -- I feel nourished!" she added.
Hirano said first-graders, including her son Sean, have discovered "dirt is not dead, it's alive" with ants, millipedes and white cockroaches, and they are even interested in decaying matter.
Sean was so enthralled with the butterfly garden as a kindergartner last year that "at the end of the semester when he had to pull out the flowers, he was sad," she said.
He asked his mother if they could start one at home, and she bought a seed packet of mixed wildflowers, which promised to attract butterflies. Sean likes to play with the caterpillars and now has four chrysalises, or cocoons from which butterflies will emerge, she said.
"He waters the plants every day and pulls weeds. That's his job," Hirano said, and she also sends him out to pick herbs for her cooking. Sean also likes growing and eating his own tomatoes and peppers, she added.
The gardening has become so popular that Waialae expanded the program to include the after-school program in January.
Fourth-graders Imua Chu and Darrius Matsumoto were among dozens of after-schoolers who helped put in the garden beds.
They much preferred it to doing homework or quiet activities in the classroom. Darrius liked being part of the teamwork, and Imua said he enjoyed "giving back to the environment since it gives so much to us -- our food, oxygen." Both added, "I like to get dirty."
Fourth-graders Beyla Araiza and Chauna Gandauli never realized they could eat the seeds of the sunflowers they grew.
"We cut off the heads of the sunflowers," said Araiza.
"And picked out the seeds. They didn't taste good; they tasted bland," Gandauli said. "We thought we would get sick, but the lady told us we could eat it raw."
Hirano said, "The nutrition lessons in the classrooms go hand in hand with the gardening," all of which are reinforced by the school's offering of a fresh fruit and salad bar every day to encourage kids to choose vegetables over more processed foods.
Melanie Sumida, parent-teacher liaison, said her son, Trey, used to hate vegetables but now boasts, "I ate salad today." She laughed that the cafeteria serves each child "only three-fourths of a hot dog and tells them that if they're still hungry, go fill up at the salad bar."