"Who wants to taste some kale?" Rob Till asks the crowd of six-, seven- and eight-year-olds.
Without hesitation, the 17 students bounded across the garden, vying to be first in line.
Kale, a leafy green vegetable received at dinner tables across the country with a resounding "eww," had James River Elementary School students begging for more.
For an hour Wednesday afternoon, the James River garden club met in the Grove Community Garden, behind the school, for the last time this spring.
Till is director of the garden as part of his nonprofit Rob Till Community Gardens. He cares for the plots and teaches visitors about composting food scraps, raising any number of vegetables and identifying insects and wildlife that might pass by.
For children, growing plants translates to eating more of them, said Amy Lazev, director of Williamsburg-James City County's School Health Initiative Program.
"We know that when students have a better understanding of where food comes from, then they're more interested in eating a diverse and healthy diet," Lazev said. "We know that kids who grow their own food are more likely to give it a try."
James River's Club
For the past four Wednesdays, parent Carolyn Harne led a procession of James River Elementary students to the garden after school to learn from Till and get their hands dirty in the soil.
"I saw the need for the kids to be outside and I zeroed in on it," Harne said. "The goal is to get kids outside, reconnecting to their green world — I'm a little bit worried that you see kids everywhere with their heads glued to their devices."
Students help weed, compost and water while learning to differentiate the plants peeping through the soil. By far their favorite part is digging holes and plopping plants into them.
A chorus of, "Can I plant this?" and "Can I plant that?" follows Till and Harne around the garden.
The answer is often "yes." Over the four weeks, students have learned how to plant lettuce and radishes, bell peppers and tomatoes.
They've dried seeds from a store-bought green pepper and replanted them. They've watched 400 donated tulips sprout and bloom and planted lettuce in a pot to take home.
Everything in the garden is donated from local businesses, James City County departments and community members, Till said.
James River's Parent-Teacher Association club joins J. Blaine Blayton, Matoaka and Matthew Whaley, all of which have a school garden with student involvement, Lazev said.
A take-home club
Seven-year-old Dahlia Hare loves gardening — especially the digging holes part. Dahlia's mom Jessica joined her twin girls, Dahlia and Juniper, each week at garden club.
"You actually get to bring home plants from the garden that you grew," Dahlia said. "It's pretty fun because you get messy, and I'm not allowed to get messy a lot."
Taking their knowledge — and the plants they grow — home is a key part of the club, Harne said. Last week the students took home a packet of assorted seeds. Hare said they have already planted theirs.
"They brought kale and radishes home and they were happy about it, so that's pretty tremendous," Jessica Hare said.
Grove, a community in southern James City County for which the garden is named, is a food desert — a USDA term for an area with little to no access to a supermarket. The closest store to James River Elementary is nearly six miles away via Route 60 and 199.
The nearly 20-member garden club is bigger than most PTA endeavors because Harne didn't want to limit children's involvement.
"I didn't want to turn anybody away, and I was particularly interested in getting Grove kids into the garden … just making people aware that you don't need a big space to grow fresh vegetables," Harne said.
Jean Keene's three children Jacob, 6, Ruthie, 8, and Cameron, 9, planted a garden at home last year, but have learned so much more from garden club, Keene said.
The Keenes live in the heart of Grove. A kitchen garden, a ready supply of fresh and healthy vegetables at each house would "absolutely help" the area's food desert problems, Keene said.
The club is over, but her kids have already asked to return to the community garden over spring break. Keene said she's pleased to see how excited they are by what they've learned.
"Before they had gardening club, they used to look through the fence and go, 'What is that?' 'What's this?' and now they know," Jean Keene said. "And they go back and tell their friends in their class."
Harne said she wants to make James River's club into a SHIP club next year — running eight weeks each spring and fall, they're longer and open to more students than the clubs the PTA offers.
The gardens at Matoaka, Matthew Whaley and J. Blaine Blayton are run by the schools, often with the help of a dedicated parent, teacher or master gardener. Frequently students will help harvest, and the produce goes back into the school cafeteria or home with the kids, Lasev said.
Spearheaded by Principal Mike Hurley, Clara Byrd Baker staff and volunteers are in the process of building a new garden. Flower beds and a fence are complete, Lazev said. The next step is getting plants in the ground.
"We're excited when schools build gardens ... and we partner with the schools to be able to meet the student interest," Lazev said. "We would love to see gardens at every school, that would be awesome."
Keene, Harne and Till hope the James River club persists.
Even without a formal club, Till said he welcomes help in the quarter-acre plot anytime.
"We're not doing so much on a large scale; so much of it is about education," Till said, "I would very much welcome (more help). … We want the children, we want the parents. Anybody can help, anybody can come for education."
Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.
Contact the gardens:
Rob Till, Grove Community Garden behind James River Elementary: 332-3361
Numbers for elementary schools, which are on spring break April 3-7.
J. Blaine Blayton Elementary: 565-9300
Matoaka Elementary: 564-4001
Matthew Whaley Elementary: 229-1931
Clara Byrd Baker Elementary: 221-0949