HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — In the eyes of 7-year-old Italia Lee, planting a garden as part of West Virginia State University's SCRATCH project is just plain fun. She planted seeds, watered them and tasted the fruits of her work — and had a great time doing all of it.
In the eyes of the program's organizers, it's much more — a way to teach them about nutrition, about working together, about growing something and making it into a product to sell, and about the farm-to-table concept of eating locally.
Recently, youth involved in SCRATCH, which stands for Sustainable Community Revitalization in Appalachia Through Children's Hands, celebrated with a Harvest Party at the site of their project, the Maudella Taylor Garden on 11th Avenue in Huntington.
The program, which is offered through the West Virginia State University's Extension Service, is funded through a $660,000, five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. The funds have allowed for the development of a garden on three lots in the 1400 block of 11th Avenue, as well as gardens at the A.D. Lewis Center, Fairfield East Community Center and Spring Hill Elementary.
Between all the locations, there are about 70 children in elementary and middle schools who have been learning about gardening and getting some hands-on learning, said Melissa Stewart, commercial agriculture and resource development specialist for the WVSU Extension Service.
SCRATCH has used an official, plant-based curriculum the children are learning: the Junior Master Gardener project, established at Texas A&M and a derivative of the 4-H program.
It's a great way for kids in an urban setting to learn how humans and nature interrelate, Stewart said.
The zest of the program is that it's directed by the children themselves. They decide what they want to grow, and they decide what they want to make out of what they grow, whether food products, bath products like soap or lotion or flowers to sell locally.
The program started small. Stephanie Conley, director at the Barnett Center, started with a small group of kids who just wanted to help fix up the lots, she said. First they got involved in fostering animal habitats so as not to disturbed the insects and animals there, and got started with food after that, she said.
"They like being in charge," Conley said. "Once it belongs to them, they are strong with it."
And they've gone from a small garden to learning about high-yield gardening, said AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Jenny Totten, one of the leaders of the program. That's a unique experience for kids in an urban setting, and they're fortunate to have the gardening space available, thanks to cooperation from the city and Housing Authority, she and Stewart said.
A lot of partners have gotten involved with the program, and the community has been supportive, Stewart said, from The Wild Ramp to Marshall University.
MU students Liza Hauldren and Alex Phares have been volunteering weekly with the kids in the SCRATCH program.
It's great to see the kids' growing interest in healthy foods, they said.
"They're so much more adventurous when they get to grow their own food," Phares said.
And it's about more than gardening, they said.
"It's been about building friendships," Hauldren said.
They're always looking for more volunteers, Totten said. To get involved, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com