Gleaning Project

Berwyn Heights Elementary School K-6 Students, Prince Georges County Public Schools, Margaret Strohecker          
Glean: “to gather the crop that has been left in a field by reapers.”
490 Berwyn Heights Elementary School Students in grades K-6 worked together for three days to harvest several tons of potatoes and green beans at Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.  Crates of vegetables were collected and immediately delivered to the Washington Area Food Bank by the Food for Others program.

Best Practice 1:  What recognized community need was met by your project (e.g. health, education, environmental or public safety need)?  

The student gleaning project recognized and met a health need: local hunger.
Our students provided fresh vegetables to a local food bank which were then distributed to families in need.
Hunger is always a need that must to be met.   Student awareness of this need began in science class.  When leaning about the life cycle of a plant, our students planted green beans and measured the height of plants that had more and less light and plants that had different amounts of water.   There were many questions:  “Which part do you eat?” and  “Where is the bean?”   Students wondered where grocery store vegetables come from, and why everyone can’t just grow their own food in windowsill cups as we did in the classroom.   There was a lot they did not understand about how food grows and the expanse of land and volume of harvest needed to provide enough food for our dinners. 
These science questions led to our research about agriculture and some discussions with the counselor about hunger.  I had participated in a volunteer Harvest for the Hungry program and was aware that Food for Others works with local food banks to provide vegetables to meet the needs of families in need in the metropolitan area.  The Beltsville Agricultural Research Farm is only three miles from our school, and regularly allows the volunteer organization, Food for Others, harvest the surplus crops for those in need.  Knowing that Food for Others is always in need of volunteers to harvest, and that children may participate in gleaning, we arranged for our students to volunteer.

Best Practice 2:  How was the project connected to school curriculum (e.g. what course outcomes were met and/or how did the project reinforce or enhance student academic learning)? 

  1. Identify and describe features of plants in our local environment and explain ways that they are well suited to the environment.
  2. Explain how plants can be grouped according to observable features
Mathematics:  Estimation   
Writing:  Writing to inform (student journal entries)

Best Practice 3:  How did you reflect on your experience throughout the project? 

  • Science:  Students compared yield from the side of the field that had a covering plant and the side that did not to conclude which method would provide the most food for families in need.
  • Writing:  Journal writing in various classes included: “The story of a potato from field to table.”  Students engaged in writing to inform with steps for “how to dig potatoes.”  They also did letter writing to describe the experience.
  • Mathematics:  Students estimated and calculated the total weight of the harvest and how many meals could be provided.  This gave an understandable context for the weight of the harvest.
  • Cooking and Tasting:  Food for Others suggests that we take a portion of the harvest to school (a few beans per student or a potato each).   Students had the opportunity to prepare and taste them at home with their families.   This helped to make the connection between the dusty fresh vegetables and “food.”  Some staff members and parents cooked sample dishes made with potato or green beans  for the students to taste.  Students in grades 1 and 3 read and discussed Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen, by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan.  The story shows how an elementary school student can help at the soup kitchen and make a difference in the lives of citizens in need.

Best Practice 4:  How did students take leadership roles and take responsibility for the success of the project? 

This was our second year of gleaning.  The first year included grades 4-6 only.
As we planned for this year’s trips, our Intermediate students suggested that primary students (grades K-3) be included in the harvest.  They thought it was important for their younger siblings to have a chance to help.  Sixth graders suggested that intermediate groups be paired with primary groups to work cooperatively.  Some classes planned science fair projects using the green bean seeds obtained in the harvest. 
After the harvest, sixth grade students counted the beans and held an estimation contest for all students.  Sixth graders announced the range of estimates and the winners.   Sixth graders announced total yield of both crops in number of crates and weight.

Best Practice 5:  What community partners did you work with on this project (e.g. non-profits, civic organizations, business that provided donations, etc.)? 

The Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (who also provided the pumpkins for 1st grade science fair).
Food for Others- We have established a yearly fall harvest K-6 and spring planting for grade 4.

Best Practice 6:  How did you prepare and plan ahead for the project?

The logistics of taking 100 students per shift into a field that is not within walking distance of a bathroom required mandatory bathroom use before leaving the school, and short shifts for the youngest students.  On student suggestions from last year’s evaluations, we expanded the project to include all students in grades K-6 for September 2007 and paired intermediate and primary groups. Cooperating across grade levels worked very well, especially because different levels of motor ability were required for different tasks.  Students saw pictures from last year’s gleaning trip and planned to wear long pants, gloves (either their own or the gloves we provided), hats, and old shoes.   Students predicted how many potatoes/ green beans they would pick for families in need.

Best Practice 7:  What knowledge and skills did students develop through this project? 

The Food for Others representative gave an orientation about the Food Bank and how the student-harvested vegetables would be used to help families.   Intermediate students read an article about the food bank and how it operates.  Some classes viewed a video clip of a high school student working at a food bank and talking about how his work benefits families in need.  He explained how he began the volunteer work to meet his service hours requirement for high school, but continued to volunteer because he could see what a difference he was able to make in the community.   Next year, we hope to have a representative from the Food Bank come to school to talk to students before the harvest.
We were surprised that a majority of students did not know that potatoes grow underground or that green beans grow on plants and contain “little beans.”  The life science instructional connections were invaluable.
Students verbalized service connections during the harvest: “I am picking mashed potatoes for little girls like me!” and  “We can feed the whole country with all of those crates!”  Last, but not least, one third grader was so excited about being a “real farmer” that he exclaimed, “This is more fun than video games!”
The project was cooperative, engaging, supported science instruction, and gave the students a sense that they had directly contributed meals that children like themselves would eat that week.  Our principal, Dr. Karen Singer, and the classroom teachers feel that this may be one of the most valuable experiences our students have in elementary school. 

Next Phase for 2008-2009

In preparation for our gleaning trips the fall of 2008, our students will plant and harvest vegetables at school.  Through a Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation (MAEF) “Urban Youth Garden Grant,” students will plant their own vegetables in Earth Boxes in our courtyard.  They will partner with a school in Chile whose students will also plant vegetables in Earth Boxes.  The students will communicate in English and Spanish via “e-pals” and share data and reflections about their harvests.   This collaboration is initiated by a United Nations sustainability project and has the goal of encouraging poor families to raise their own vegetables at home.  South American students are given seeds and materials necessary to start and sustain family gardens, hopefully helping to keep food on the tables of low income families.