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GROW connects elementary students to agriculture

Kaitlyn Riley

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Fresh from the garden, elementary students in La Crosse are growing an interest in agriculture.

More than six years ago, a program called GROW started providing hands-on opportunities for students to produce their own local foods, according to GROW Outreach Coordinator Bonnie Martin

“The kids get really excited about their garden lessons,” Martin said. “They never want to miss one.”

Bonnie Martin, GROW outreach coordinator, says the hoop house extends the school’s garden growing season.

The ability to work directly with the plants and soil is what Martin credits to student success. She said the physical experience impacts how much they retain and can change their learning behaviors.

Many of the plants grown are native species that could be used in the lunchroom as items on the salad bar, but Martin said they do try to mix in other varieties to give a more broad view of options.

GROW typically offers three lessons in the spring and three in the fall, but a grant from the La Crosse Community Foundation provided the opportunity to have a Cultural Connection lesson for 4th- and 5th-grade students. Students had the chance to hear from a cultural speaker about Ho-Chunk customs as well as multi-lingual words, plant names, and the medicinal use of plants.

“We want to be able to connect students to other cultures to see that not every culture has the same growing practices so they can see beyond what they know and have that greater reach and a better appreciation for other cultures,” Martin said.

State Road Elementary invited Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse) to visit their school, tour the gardens, and even take part in the taste-testing. 

“The kids are eating vegetables now that they wouldn’t normally eat because they grew themselves, so it is helping with the nutrition and it is also connecting them to the food that they eat,” Billings said.

Billings said people are never too old for a lesson in agriculture.

Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse) visits with State Road Elementary students to learn about GROW.

“I think it is important for kids and all of us to learn where our food comes from,” Billings said. “I’ve talked with a lot of farmers lately, and whether it is international issues like tariffs or local issues, farmers are really having a tough time of it. I think it is important for us to appreciate the hard work that is being done on farms in Wisconsin to provide us with what we need to survive.”

GROW is continuing to build with the number of schools the organization serves. The program currently has eight sites this year and hopes to expand.

Kaitlyn Riley’s passion for communications started on her family’s dairy farm in Gays Mills, Wis. Wanting to share agriculture’s story, she studied strategic communications and broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In college, she held officer positions with the Association of Women in Agriculture and Badger Dairy Club while volunteering as a news reporter for the college radio station. She also founded the university’s first agricultural radio talk show, AgChat. In her professional career, Kaitlyn has worked in both radio, print and television news doing everything from covering local events to interviewing presidential candidates, and putting back on her barn boots to chat with farmers in the field. Today, Kaitlyn can be seen covering local stories that matter to you in the La Crosse area.

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