Seeds of faith


If Popeye hasn’t successfully convinced your kids to eat their spinach, take them on a field trip to St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Buffalo.

School lunches at St. Francis include a daily dose of vegetables, and Culinary Specialist Denise Ryan, who leads the school’s lunch program, said the kids often tell her, “You’re the best cook. We have the best food here. We just love it here.”

In the cafeteria, kids line up eager to see which vegetables they’ll find in their lunches. They’re excited to eat their veggies because they use their own hands to grow them in the school’s expansive outdoor garden.

The idea to start a school garden came from Melissa Kuzma, a school parent who teaches wellness classes and enjoys organic gardening. Ryan explored the possibility through a “School Gardening 101” class offered by the University of Minnesota through the Wright County Extension Office.

“I came back and brought [a school garden proposal] to our Wellness Committee and to the Garden Committee, and we decided we would take it on. We would try to do it. And the idea was for it to be organic, sustainable,” Ryan said.

As part of her class, Ryan designed the St. Francis garden — eight raised beds, a pergola and an area for pumpkins. She also received a $500 stipend to build the garden, but this was not enough make her vision a reality. Several donations later — including $1,000 raised at the school’s annual gala and multiple in-kind donations — St. Francis was ready to start building.  A school-wide student vote determined the new garden’s name: “Seeds of Faith.”

Three years after Kuzma brought her idea to the school, gardening has become an integral component of the curriculum at St. Francis. During the 2015-16 school year, each grade tended one garden bed centered on a theme students devised.

“When we started, each class or each grade level decided what they were going to plant, and what we found after the first two years was that it works better if there’s a theme to it. So [last] year, we started with a theme,” third-grade teacher Barb Vieau said.

Following research to determine the best tomatoes, onions and jalapenos for salsa, third graders planted a salsa garden. After using garden ingredients to create their own salsa recipes, they made salsa recipe books and sold them to raise money for the local food shelf.

Combining Catholic faith with gardening, the second graders planted a memorial garden filled with a variety of flowers.

“When [the second graders] come to the garden, they say a Hail Mary for someone in their family that has either passed away or is in need,” Vieau said.

Other class themes include a butterfly garden, a pumpkin patch, a root vegetable bed and a lettuce garden. Garden upkeep requires hard work and dedication from teachers, students and parent volunteers, but the rewards are bountiful.

“There’s good educational research out there about getting children connected to nature and including nature as part of their education,” St. Francis Principal Alisa Louwagie said. “If you can involve nature as part of [students’] education in those early years — and especially for boys — they stay more connected and more interested in continuing to learn all the way through.”

Nicole Dietman, a school parent, offered to plant grape vines in the garden and serves as a garden volunteer during the summer months. Her favorite part of gardening is watching the ownership kids take and the pride they have in their work.

“They know — especially with the grapes — which vine they planted, and they know which flower they planted in the flower garden. They’re very proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Dietman said.
Students’ pride in their work translates directly into their willingness to try new foods in their school lunches.

“Mrs. Ryan is pretty amazing with her menus,” Dietman said, “and the kids try new things that they would never touch at home.”

Third grader Ella Danielson admits, “I tried onions, and they were pretty good.”

Ryan makes sure her meals are never boring and always healthy. Kids eat shredded beets and radishes in salads, root vegetable stew in the fall and garbanzo bean hummus. Recently, they’ve even tried jicama, a native Mexican turnip similar to a potato. Food allergies are common at St. Francis, but Ryan ensures all students are able to eat a healthy, allergen-free meal comparable to what the other students eat.

“They like to come through the lunch line, and I don’t want them to feel odd or anything,” Ryan said.

Moving forward, Ryan said she would like to add apple trees, raspberries and a greenhouse to the garden. Top on her wish list is composting, but the potential of decaying plants to attract wild animals has put this dream on hold for now. In the meantime, students will continue to reap the benefits of exploring God’s creation outside of a typical classroom environment.

“We’re caring for the world — things that God created — and we’re teaching [children] to eat healthy, and that’s care for their bodies,” Louwagie said.

While some students may be looking forward to harvesting grapes and others can’t wait to plant pumpkins, Vieau is most excited to continue making happy memories with her students.

“They will never remember a worksheet you handed them, but to come out here and even just to pull weeds, you would think you would have given them the key to a city or something. They are just ecstatic to get out here, and they’re good workers, too,” Vieau said. “For me, taking a group of kids out here and just seeing the excitement … they can hardly contain themselves to wait until they can do something … it’s just — it’s invaluable.”

To learn how to start your own school garden, visit the CSCOE blog at

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