Self Portrait (2)This week, Rootstock Radio speaks with Jamie O’Neill, who—after earning her master’s degree in Community Health Education, teaching in Sweden and working on an organic farm in Switzerland—is now a program director for GROW La Crosse. GROW La Crosse is a non-profit organization in southwest Wisconsin that connects children to healthy food and nature through school gardens and farm experiences.

GROW La Crosse aims for the full “garden-to-mouth” experience as Jamie puts it, including children in the cultivation of their food from planting seeds and caring for plants, to eating their produce right from their school’s salad bar. Research shows that children who are actively engaging with healthy food eat…well…healthier. And as obvious as that sounds, Jaime shares that one of the biggest questions she gets when kids visit the garden is, “Can I have more spinach?” or “Can I have more tomatoes?” When was the last time you heard a child beg for their vegetables?

Listen to Theresa and Jaime talk about gardening, GROW La Crosse, and helping kids learn about eating healthy food! Click the link above to listen, or as always, you can stream Rootstock Radio on Stitcher and iTunes.

Interview with Jamie O’Neill

July 4, 2016

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and today I’m very pleased to be here with Jamie O’Neill, who is a program director for GROW La Crosse, located in southwestern Wisconsin. Jamie has taught summer camps for GROW La Crosse for over eight years, and she holds a master’s of science degree in community health education. She is focusing on teaching healthy eating habits to children, which is just a wonderful thing, and she wrote a garden curriculum for her master’s program. Jamie also completed the Master Gardeners course with one of our favorite food and farm activists, Will Allen, and I’m sure many of you heard of the Growing Power workshop in Milwaukee. So I want to welcome Jamie.

JAMIE O’NEILL: Thank you.

TM: Jamie, it’s just so fun to know that you’re out there with this passion for helping children and communities look at healthy food and maybe even changing their eating habits through gardening. Is that a good way to summarize what you’re doing?

JO: Yes, absolutely. That is one of our main goals, is to help them eat healthier. And anyone who has kids or even a family out there that does not eat healthy knows how hard it typically is to get fruits and vegetables into the mouths of people who typically don’t eat healthy. And even those who do eat healthy, trying something new is definitely a challenge. So yeah, we’re trying to get people to eat more healthy foods, try new things, and then even just spend some time outside in nature. And all of those things have been found in research to help people increase the amount of fruits and vegetables that they’re eating.

TM: And this idea that you said that there’s some research about fruits, vegetables, vegetables and so on. Do you think that if you are exposed and start eating these as a child that you’re more likely to really love them as an adult?

JO: Yup, absolutely. Yeah, I was just amazed when I was doing my community health grad program, I was really looking to find ways to help people eat healthier, and I was trying… At that time I was actually working at the YMCA as a special events director. And so through those programs we were trying to help people eat healthier, and it really sometimes feels like a shot in the dark. You’re trying different things, you’re trying this, and not every time do people take to it. Just like, even in La Crescent, in Minnesota, they were trying to put a fruit on every kid’s plate that came through the cafeteria, so an apple or an orange. And unfortunately a lot of those kids, just in defiance, took that and threw it right into the garbage. So a lot of times you’re trying things and they’re not always working.

But I was seeing this research that said if kids are in there and they’re planting the seeds, and if they’re able to help harvest the food, that they’re more likely to eat that. And even with my own kids now, I’m so glad that I was able to see that research and to implement it, because it’s so true that if kids are out there, that they’re eating it. And you know, honestly, one of the biggest questions I get asked when I bring kids out to the garden is, “Can I have more spinach?” or “Can I have more tomatoes?” And how often do you typically hear that in a cafeteria setting or when you’re at home eating dinner? So it really is amazing, just the power of being in the garden and having that hands-on experience that really does help improve how much, or maybe even the quality of what the kids are eating. And I do believe, like you asked, that those kids that are exposed to gardens and are eating from the garden are more likely to eat those fresh fruits and vegetables down the road, whether that’s from a garden or from a grocery store or cafeteria.

TM: What made you develop or have this passion for wanting to bring this healthy food to children and communities?

JO: So again, a lot of the research that I was doing was just so powerful in terms of gardening with kids. And I had looked at a whole bunch of different methods to try to increase this food, and really gardening stood out as one that was actually working. They did some research showing kids that just had nutrition education alone, and kids that had nutrition mixed with gardening. And the people unfortunately who just had nutrition education with no garden component, their eating habits did not change at all after the nutrition program. And those that had the nutrition plus the gardening, it did change.

So just seeing a ton of powerful research like that, I really wanted to try it. I also come from a background of gardening, with my family having gardened in the past. I also was very lucky to get to go to different camps and different farms to see that when I was young as well. So I do think, as I was growing up, it being a powerful factor in my eating, in my life. I felt that because of the research and because of my experience, there must be something to it. And sure enough, again, every time I’m out there with kids I’m just amazed and surprised at what they’ll try and what they’ll eat if they had a hands-on experience with that food.

TM: Well, that’s exciting, and that’s a great “aha!” I think for all of us who are parents to have. I think anyone who did have a parent who gardened and was able to be part of that garden probably has had a similar experience. I know that I have to say that when I was young I was the middle kid, but my mother…I was…I weeded. And I think at the time, I didn’t appreciate it. And my mother also had a compost, and then she also had some other strange habits that, to me, at the time, seemed strange, but today make perfect sense. So I grew up with that.

Would you say it’s true that a lot of children just aren’t exposed anymore to having their hands in the soil and being in a garden? I’m just thinking about this book that I read a long time ago—I can’t remember exactly the name, but he coined a term called “nature deficit disorder.”

JO: Yeah, I believe that was Last Child in the Woods [[by Richard Louv]].

TM: Exactly. Last Child in the Woods, thank you.

JO: Great read, if people have not read it yet. He has coined that phrase, and they are seeing definitely that people are, unfortunately, spending less time in nature, and kids are less exposed nowadays than they were twenty, fifty, however many years ago, to growing that food and to getting their hands in the dirt in order to produce something. So yes, kids are less exposed, unfortunately, these days.

But, again, with the programs that we’re doing, we’re seeing that some kids are surprising their parents, surprising teachers, surprising other people. When we had Will Allen come and visit our garden recently, he asked the kids, “Well, what’s your favorite thing that you’ve been eating in the garden?” And the kids were, a lot of them, saying “ground cherries,” and some adults were tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “What are ground cherries? I actually don’t know what those are.” So that’s been really neat and really fun, too, to see that even having the garden at school, not necessarily at home, but having one at school and being able to get out there for education programs has increased what the kids have been learning and seeing and eating.

TM: Tell us more about GROW La Crosse. I know that you said that I think it was a four-year program, that started about four years ago? Tell us, what does the program entail?

JO: Yeah, so GROW La Crosse focuses on connecting children to healthy food and nature. So we are trying to get children exposed from the garden to food, or garden-to-mouth experience, growing their own food. And what we do is we help build and maintain gardens at schools here in La Crosse, and then we also do education components to it. So teachers are allowed—they’re not forced, but they’re allowed—to sign up for our programs. So we just put a sign-up sheet in the teachers’ lounge, and they can sign up for programs that we’re running, and then bring their class out during those times. And then we teach those programs to the kids, with the teachers there.

So one we did recently was seed saving, so they’ll learn how to… Or I shouldn’t say “recently,” I guess that one was in the fall, but they’re learning how to save seeds from plants. This spring we planted seeds with them, and then we also transplanted them out into the garden. We did taste testings, so they got to try arugula pesto dip with pitas and then also some kale chips. So we’re helping them plant the seeds, helping them know how to make stuff with the things that we’re planting.

And then another big component of GROW La Crosse is our farm camps as well. So during the summer, kids can sign up for a camp and go out to Deep Roots Community Farm, which is just ten minutes from La Crosse, and they get to learn about the process of food there, [and] see animals and other components of food as well, out on the farm.


TM: Well, that is a very good, comprehensive program. I guess the one tie I wondered was, does any of this food end up in the lunch program in schools?

JO: Oh yes, yes. Sorry, I did not mention that. So yes, we do actually take food from our gardens and put it into the cafeteria, and they put a sign particularly in the cafeteria announcing when the food is in there. And the cooks have all said that “Wow, when we are able to have stuff from the garden, the salad bar goes a lot faster.” So that’s been really fun to see. But yes, especially at our State Road Elementary School site, we have both raised beds and a hoop house with raised beds. And that hoop house really helps us produce a lot of the greens that can go into the salad bar, and then other things for the salad bar as well. So we’ll have some, when they come back in the fall, we’ll have cherry tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and things like that that can be cut up and put onto the salad bar.

TM: Well, you know, this certainly begs a couple of questions I have to ask. And I’m very, very interested in school gardens, and part of the problem that a lot of school gardens have had is that there’s no one to take care of the garden in summer when the kids are gone. And then also, of course, getting teachers to support it and be involved. So tell me, how is it you’re able to have this wonderful hoop house and have someone caring for it in the summer? And how many teachers are you getting to volunteer or become involved?

JO: Yeah, that is a great question, and you touched on it: Sustainability or sustaining the garden is the number one problem of school gardens. That’s the hardest thing that people find when they try to start one is that, how do I keep it going? And luckily we were able to do a lot of calling to other school gardens and even listening in on conference calls that other school gardens were doing, talking about how they are sustaining. So gardens that have been around for ten years, or fifteen, twenty years, how do they do this, or how are they keeping it going?

And actually the number one thing that everyone said is you actually shouldn’t hand it over to a teacher. And not because teachers are not reliable—they’re definitely reliable. But they have so much that they’re already doing at the school. So we need to take that off of their plates and have an outside organization that’s helping organize the school garden and making sure that people are there in the summer to take care of it, and making sure that when it’s busy at school, that there’s still someone that can be there.

So for GROW La Crosse, we’re actually a nonprofit organization that works with the schools, but we’re not through the schools, if that makes sense. So we’re not getting any school district money or anything like that. We fund-raise for our money, so we put on a few events, and we also get help from the PTOs. We combine fund-raisers with them to get some money for the school gardens, and that helps pay me and a few other program directors that work very part-time. But we help make sure that those programs run and that over the summer, parents are helping sign up; we have interns that help, we have other volunteers that help. Luckily, at our school sites this summer, we’re having some summer school programming, so those kids who are there will help somewhat maintain it. They’ll also be helping harvesting and eating some of the food. And then at one of our sites, they actually are a year-round school so they’ll be helping throughout.

But no matter what the school calendar is like, our program directors are the ones that are there and making sure it’s maintained and upkeeped, so again it doesn’t fall on the teacher’s shoulders.

TM: Jamie, just to back up a little bit, what does PTO stand for, for our listeners?

JO: Yeah, the parent-teacher organizations at the schools, a lot of times, put on events to raise money for different things at the school. And because our gardens at the schools are very positive things, we together do some fund-raisers, so that they’re getting some money for the school and then we’re also getting some money for the school garden.


TM: For our listeners who have just joined us, we are talking to Jamie O’Neill, who is working with a wonderful program in La Crosse called GROW La Crosse, which is working with gardens in elementary schools. I just am so excited that these programs exist and that it sounds to me like there’s a lot of them. You said that you have had the ability to learn from other school gardens who have [been] facing the same kind of problems with sustaining the program over the summer, sustaining it in general as far as funding goes, and so on. I just am curious, do you think that gardens should be integrated into the school budget and be part of the school curriculum?

JO: Absolutely! We would love to see that at some point. We would even love to see a little bit of the cafeteria money that’s going to buy greens potentially buy them from school gardens, because that could help sustain. So that, I do think, yeah, it would be a very positive thing for some money definitely to go towards school gardens. And I know with curriculum and standards and things like that, some people find it very hard to justify. Like how do we put money towards gardening if we’re looking to really boost math scores and boost reading and things like that?

But luckily, again, with more and more research coming out, they are finding that kids who eat healthier do have better scores. And also taking, they might call it a body break at some schools, or a nature break—that also, if kids are able to go outside for fifteen minutes before taking a test, they’re finding that also boosts scores. So luckily the studies are in our favor. And I do hope that, yes, in the future more and more schools find value in it and are able to financially put some money towards it.

TM: Well, you know, it is, I always have to laugh when you hear about, you know, the studies that show—you know, we spend tons of research on what is common sense. If you work in a garden and you’re growing food, gee, you might like to try it, and you might learn to enjoy fresh food, is quite humorous.

And so I can’t resist talking a little bit about school lunch. We have school lunch programs based on schools buying this commodity food. And I’m assuming that even La Crosse is still on that program and that the food that you’re growing in your gardens is actually supplementing that. I mean, when you basically said they had a salad bar, I thought to faint right here where I’m sitting, because so many schools don’t even have anything like a salad bar. And then when you said, “And then we talked to the cooks”—well, a lot of schools don’t have cooks! I don’t know if our listeners know this, but across America, what schools have is microwaves, and they get this commodity food and they stick it in the microwave, and they don’t know how to cook anymore.

JO: Yes, that is true. A lot of our sites here at La Crosse are called warming stations or heating stations. And unfortunately there’s just a few sites that do either cook or are able to maybe prepare things a little more, and then they ship that food to the other schools and then they basically just warm it. Luckily, I would say, there are some standards that are holding them to a higher thing. And I don’t think it’s actually anyone’s fault, unfortunately, just because it is such a low budget that they’re able to spend per meal. So if at some point more value was put into that, again, financially, if we were putting more money into school lunch programs, I think they would, and they would be excited to do more with it. But on such a low budget it is sometimes difficult for them to find ways to get really fresh, healthy, organic food in there.

Although I would say that there are programs, for instance, in Oshkosh and Appleton, Wisconsin, that we were looking at that are able to get most of their food organically, and things like that. But finding sponsors or finding people that can help source that food or help fund that food is key in helping that happen. So I don’t think it’s completely out of the question. I think someday we could get there. I think right now it’s a matter of finding the resources to do so.

TM: Well, it just seems like a pretty robust program. You’re not all alone, are you, on it? Do you have paid staff and volunteers?

JO: Correct, yes. We have a few program directors, three program directors to be exact, and then we have an executive director, and then a lot of volunteers that help out as well. We do have some part-time staff that help a little bit with the special events and also with the farm camps during the summer. But yeah, in total, we have a grand total of eight staff members, and then quite a few volunteers that help out.

TM: I read that you have actually developed a curriculum for this, and I’d love for you to talk about that a little bit. Was it based on other curriculums that you saw, or how did you put it together?

JO: Yeah, I created a curriculum through my master’s program, when I was doing my master’s program, because I was finding a lot of good stuff online, but almost too much stuff. And something that grows in Florida, unfortunately, does not always grow in Wisconsin. So in order to garden, you do have to find stuff that works for your area and that is time-sensitive to when you are growing with the kids. So I was able to put together some education that focused on the gardening and on the hands-on learning and on plants that then we were able to measure as kids were both learning more about growing but also eating better because of that.


TM: And you know, I read that you yourself have taken a lot of gardening educational opportunities, such as working in gardens in Switzerland. Is that what I heard? And also read that you worked with Will Allen and took a gardeners course with Will Allen, the Growing Power, in Milwaukee. Tell us about your own education in gardening.

JO: Yeah, so I actually was on an organic farm for a while in Sweden. But I did work in Switzerland—so I worked in Switzerland at a boarding school for a while with kids. But while we had summer break, I was able to go to Sweden and work on an organic farm through WWOOFing—maybe some people have heard about it. It stands for Worldwide Organic Farming. And in exchange for working four hours a day on a farm, they actually feed you and house you. So I was able to do that, which was really neat to see some different techniques of gardening, and then also just enhance my own education on growing and gardening there. So that was really amazing.

And then, like you said, I was also able to go to some workshops that Will Allen holds at Growing Power in Milwaukee. And if people have a chance, I highly, highly recommend those. He puts on a weekend every month where you can go and choose what break-out sessions you want to do, and they range from everything from building a hoop house, which is how we got the hoop house here in La Crosse, to microgreens, to growing mushrooms, to they also have animals there, so how to care for different animals. So really a lot of neat break-out sessions that are easy to implement once you get back.

TM: That sounds fantastic. You are inspiring me to go visit Will Allen’s project. Would you say again, what was the program that you did in Europe? I just want those of you out there who are young folks who might be listening to this to maybe note this opportunity.

JO: People who have done it, they call it just “woofing,” because that’s kind of what it spells. But it’s WWOOF, and again, Worldwide Organic Farming, even though there’s another O in there—maybe I’m forgetting one of the words [[actually it’s World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms]]. But you can go almost to any country with that program. So if you go to their website it’ll show you all the different countries that are listed, and people on farms in those places can post, kind of like an ad, just showing what they have at their farm and what they need help for. And if you’re interested, you contact those people and set up dates. The minimum time is two weeks, so you do have to stay at least two weeks at one of these spots, just because if they’re putting the training in, I think they also need some work in exchange. But what an amazing way to travel, and especially on a budget.

TM: Well, I just took my phone out and started googling as you were talking, and, wwoofaustralia, Canada, Hawaii… It looks like there’s lots of opportunities there for those who have the time and are able to do that or want to do that. Did you learn a lot of different practices, agricultural practices, organic practices while you were there, Jamie?

JO: Well, I was just able to see some really neat things that maybe I just hadn’t been exposed to here. So just even like they do a little more manually baling of hay, so they, just in some of the tools that they have, it’s a little more low-key. So if somebody had a hobby farm here, it might be more of what that would look like, as opposed to like a big huge farm. So it was definitely neat to see that. Definitely neat to see how they raised chickens—pretty similar, but a little more incorporated into maybe their daily life. I don’t know how to…just they were closer to the house than maybe I’d seen, in passing. But yeah, now I raise chickens because I was able to learn how they did it and just be more comfortable maybe with it. So yeah, maybe all the more super mind-blowing practices or anything out of the realm, but definitely things that I was able to learn and then implement when I got back.

TM: Well, that’s excellent, because the more that we integrate all these things together, I think, the more powerful they can be. So I’m really very, very happy to hear this.

We’re kind of running out of time, and I want to thank you so much, Jamie, for the great work that you’re doing. And I’m seeing that you definitely are one of these multitalented people. You’ve built a curriculum, you’re a gardener, you’re helping to not just maintain the gardens but vision how you can grow them. You obviously have a passion for education and children and the deliciousness of food. But for our listeners, on top of all of this, Jamie also has to be a fund-raiser. So any of you out there who feel like, “Yes, I think that I can and should help subsidize this beautiful education for children in the La Crosse schools,” how would our listeners, if they wanted to contribute to this beautiful program, how could they contact you, or where could they donate money?

JO: Great! They can go to, and on the top of our website there is a “donate” button. So we definitely appreciate anyone who would like to financially contribute to our program. We also, if people are in the La Crosse area, we have a Fall Festival on the Farm happening September 24 at Deep Roots Farm, and even two Saturdays from now we have Yoga on the Farm, and different things like that under our “Event” tab. So people are in our area and would like to come to any of our events, those also financially support our programs.

 TM: Jamie, thank you so much, and thank you for all the beautiful, good work that you’re doing on behalf of the children that we all know and love.

JO: Well, thank you guys.

TM: Thank you for joining us today. We have been talking with Jamie O’Neill, program director for GROW La Crosse, a nonprofit organization in southwest Wisconsin that connects children to healthy food and nature through school gardens and farm experiences.

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