RICHMOND — Richmond Elementary School Principal Sharon Martin does whatever it takes to make learning fun, so if getting students’ attention in the Fruit and Veggie Challenge means dressing up as a pickle, she’s okay with that.
“You have to be really creative about finding ways to make things fun in a socially-distanced school,” she said.
Richmond became the Chariho district’s “health and wellness” school when the four elementary schools began to offer specialized learning experiences as part of an effort to attract and retain students. An important part of the health and wellness mandate is encouraging healthy eating among the students, and Martin was looking for a new way to get the children to sample fruits and vegetables they had never tried before.
Martin’s search took her all the way to Indiana, where she learned about the Fruit and Veggie Challenge.
“I found a school out in Indiana where the principal dressed up in vegetable costumes and made a little video and motivated the kids to keep track of their fruit and vegetable servings,” she said.
Dressed as an avocado, Martin launched school’s first-ever Fruit and Veggie Challenge at the beginning of January and later switched to a pickle costume. The students and their teachers, from kindergarten to Grade 4, formed teams and recorded the servings of fruits and vegetables they ate every day.
“Their goal was to have between five and seven servings a day of fruits and vegetables,” Martin said. “I divided the school into teams — team banana, team pepper — all the teams were representative of staff and students.”
The school’s Student Council was responsible for tabulating the results each week, and each team’s totals were posted on a big chart in the hallway.
The friendly competition kept the children engaged in the project.
“They were a little competitive, trying to see if they could get a better score than they did the week before, and then, toward the end of the challenge, I sent out a little movie where I was visiting classes during lunch, making a big deal about kids who had fruits and vegetables for lunch. I played the same song that I saw this guy do out in Indiana,” Martin said.
Looking for ideas for prizes for the winning team, Martin contacted Karen Wetherill, Co-Director of the Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition, a statewide group that supports schools’ wellness initiatives. Wetherill in turn connected Martin with Farm Fresh Rhode Island, where a representative suggested that the school work with Scituate hydroponic grower Skydog Farms, which had received a grant and was looking for a partner on a project.
Martin spoke with Skydog farmer Katherine Fotiades in December about providing the prizes.
“They had enough grant money to reward the winning team, and then we also did the winning class — there was one class [class 4C] that had a ridiculous number of servings, so we included them in a very special virtual assembly, getting to know more about farming. She [Fotiades] put together a little video showing the kids hydroponic farming and what they do at Skydog farm,” she said.
With 911 servings of fruit and vegetables during January, Team Banana was announced the winner at the virtual assembly on Jan. 28. Class 4C was second with 435. The 100 winning students received kits, assembled at Skydog farm, containing everything they needed to hydroponically grow pea sprouts at home.
Fotiades also brought some actual pea sprouts to the school.
“She delivered pea sprouts so that the kids could taste them at lunch,” Martin said. “I’ve never had a pea sprout and I tasted it and I told her that I thought it tasted like summer. It was so delicious and fresh.”
The students received an online tutorial on how to use their kits before taking them home. Grade 4C teacher David Caplette said his students were thrilled to receive their kits.
“Our students loved the Skydog Farms virtual assembly,” he said. “They were excited to learn about alternative methods of growing crops, and they are pumped to have their own hydroponic kit to grow their very own pea shoots.”
Grade 2 teacher Paige Leddy said her students would soon be starting their own growing projects and were interested in learning how hydroponic growing works.
“My second-grade students thought the assembly was very exciting because they are planning to grow their own seeds with soil as part of their next science kit,” she said. “It will be great to compare how different types of seeds germinate in water compared to soil.”
Superintendent of Schools Gina Picard, who serves with Martin on the Chariho Health and Wellness Committee, said the competition had been a great way to engage students.
“Getting kids to partake, as someone who has a 10-year-old, it’s not easy,” she said. “Sharon did talk about how just that competition gets them excited. She said you could literally hear the cheers across the school when she announced who’s in the lead or who’s winning — definitely a time that’s brought them joy.”