Molalla School Garden Outgrows Childhood Obesity

High school students are planting the seeds of healthy eating.

While most teenagers are texting friends, posting pictures to Instagram, or tethered to some other form of technology, a group of students at Molalla High School are busy gardening, supporting the community, and learning about other cultures and each other, not to mention chipping away at childhood obesity “one tomato at a time.”

After Kelly Douglas, a library assistant at Molalla High, chaperoned a small group of students to a Russian Speaking Youth Leadership Conference, she suggested they start a club to study together and support one another.  Douglas, a Russian Old Believer, wanted to see the students connect and build community.  That’s exactly what happened. Soon a group of Hispanic students asked to participate, and before Douglas knew it, there were 150 students involved, students from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.  The club is now known as Culture Club.

“I realized Culture Club was a success when we reached 150 members in just a few months,” said Douglas, now the Culture Club advisor. “We created the club with the intention of combining cultures for homework and games and to break bread together, and look at us now. We have grown into a group of culturally diverse teenagers fueling a progressive healthy movement to fight childhood obesity.”

Together, the students have created a school garden. With a $5,000 grant from PacificSource Foundation and the OSU Extension program Youth Advocates for Health, Molalla High now has an 8,000 square foot garden on its grounds, which is inspiring its students to eat healthy and stay active.

Noah Klein is one Molalla High Student who has found that having fresh produce from a garden leads him to eat things that he wouldn’t otherwise.  

“I'm not a big vegetable person,” Klein said, “I'll take a nice fattening fast-food meal any day of the week. Many of my friends and I do not typically eat healthy foods like tomatoes, cucumbers and whatnot, but now that we have a garden that is accessible to us with actual healthy, tasty food just waiting to be eaten, we often eat from the garden. There has been several times where I have gone outside and picked some lemon cucumbers and some ground cherries for lunch rather then pay for school lunch. I can rest in the knowledge that not only is the garden food more healthy than the school lunches, but more satisfying too.”

Klein is the Culture Club’s work crew leader, a role that requires he organize different times for club’s 150 members to plant, weed, pick, and take care of the garden.

Culture Club members have been exposed to eating healthy, fresh food through tending the garden and reaping its harvest, but they’ve also helped influence other students and teachers to make healthier food and snack choices by making hummus and selling it, along with vegetables from the school garden and a pita.  Club members also take orders from teachers to purchase produce from the garden.

“Our goal is to get healthy food into the hands of these hungry growing teenagers after school,” Douglas explained. “We have no ‘live’ food on campus after the cafeteria serves lunch, yet the kids have practice, games and such and need healthy food available.  Otherwise, they reach into their lockers for chips and coke from the machine in the hall.”

Angela Shvachka, a Culture Club member and officer who serves as the club’s event planner, isn’t new to healthy eating, but she was surprised by how many students didn’t eat healthy food or even know how to make healthier choices.

“Because my family does eat healthy and organic food, I didn't realize how many people didn't until Culture Club started changing people's diets,” Shvachka explained. “The opportunity to eat lunch out in the garden, or pick a tomato for a snack, is a completely new experience for many teenagers at my school.”

For Shvachka, a senior at Molalla High, the work of the Culture Club is just beginning.

“Our garden is a living legacy to Molalla High School working towards helping fight childhood obesity,” Shvachka said. “This is something that we can pass onto the younger generation, continuing the cycle of sustainability.”  

And it’s not just a school project, many local businesses have donated time and materials to the garden.

“Culture Club harvested and donated 100 pounds of cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, Swiss chard, kale, cucumbers and lettuce to our local Meals on Wheels program,” Douglas noted. “We recently donated 109 pounds of fresh organic vegetables to the Estacada fire evacuees and firefighters.”

Being healthy and having fun doing it, is not the only positive outcome from Culture Club’s influence.  In fact, bullying and fighting have both decreased significantly since the Culture Club started its ripple effect.

“All this (gardening and healthy eating) is only a single part of the life Culture Club brings in to the school,” Klein said. “What truly makes a difference in the lives of the students involved in it is the bonding and connection that they feel after gardening together.”

Douglas, who recently won the 2014 Oregon Public Health Institute Genius Award, is quick to give club members credit for their accomplishments.

“The only reason Culture Club exists is because of these fantastic Molalla teenagers gathering together with positive energy to make a difference,” Douglas said. “These kids are our future leaders and I celebrate them every day.”


Joanne can be reached at [email protected].

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