KINGSTON — At the Rennock Lodge All-age School in East Kingston the local campaign slogan, 'Eat What We Grow, Grow What We Eat', has become a way of life.
Under the school’s Nutrition Enhancement project, everything that is prepared in the institution’s canteen, and eaten by the students and teachers during breakfast and lunch periods, had its genesis in the school’s backyard garden.
Plantains and bananas, tomatoes, scallion, red peas and even pineapples are grown on a plot of land at the back of the facility, while there is also a chicken and egg project.
The garden project, which started in July 2010, is the brainchild of a determined and courageous teacher, Jacqueline Lewis who recognised that nutrition was a serious concern at Rennock Lodge and vowed to do something about it.
Attendance was at a low level, she tells JIS News during an interview recently. Out of a school population of more than 230 students, there were only 15 to 20 children attending classes collectively from grades one to three. And from grade six – the group that was working to sit the Grade Six Achievement Test – just over 12 students turned out for classes on a regular basis.
On investigating, Mrs. Lewis found that many of the students were unable to attend school because their parents did not have the money to provide them with breakfast and lunch, and unfortunately, due to their poor attendance record, a number of them could not benefit or were dropped from the Programme of Advancement through Health and Education (PATH), a Government assistance programme that targets poor families, to include children, the elderly, the disabled, pregnant and lactating women.
“For PATH, you had to have an attendance rate of about 80 per cent for them to keep you on the programme,” Mrs. Lewis says, while noting that many of the students sometimes only attended school two to three times per week.
“When I looked at it, I noticed that the amount of money that was provided to the school through PATH could only provide lunch for the students for about two to three days,” she says.
Mrs. Lewis, who is a Home Economics Specialist, tells JIS News that out of a genuine concern for her students, she decided to start a breakfast and lunch programme at the school, but later found it difficult to sustain.
After teaming up with the school’s Parents Teachers' Association (PTA), the senior teacher decided to put together a detailed proposal which she sent to the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF), in the hope that she would gain support for her well-needed project.
Mrs. Lewis said she got a call from JSIF saying they were very impressed with the proposal, and that, “I should conduct a baseline study on the nutritional levels and body mass index of the students to see what the results would be."
She then compiled a baseline study to support her proposal, which showed that a majority of the students attending the school were weighing below the required weight level for their age.
After a visit to the school by a JSIF project officer, who found that the programme was a necessity, the school got its first donation of about $311,000 under the Grants of Low Amounts (GOLAs) programme, which is funded by the European Union (EU).
With the first tranche from JSIF, the school started its backyard garden, where Mrs. Lewis, with the help of her students, began planting pak choi, callaloo, cabbage and peppers, which she would use to sustain the breakfast programme.
She then approached representatives of Jamaica Flour Mills Ltd., who agreed to donate rice and flour to the school for the lunch programme.
As a result of the programme, attendance has more than tripled. “The students started turning out on a large scale; they weren’t stopping at all. Now we have 50 in grade nine, 60 in grade eight and about 40 in grade four and so I knew I now needed to increase the programme,” Mrs. Lewis says.
The nutritionist knew that to sustain the programme she needed to find a way to stop spending excessively on chickens, and so she decided to rear her own.
Starting out with 200 chickens the school now has enough eggs and chickens for breakfast and lunch, as well as to sell to companies in the area. The funds from the sale of the eggs and chickens are put back into the programme.
“We get five to six trays of eggs per day and each of the broilers (chickens) weigh about four pounds, the largest we got was eight and a half pounds,” the teacher says, with much pride.
Mrs. Lewis tells JIS News that apart from a marked improvement in attendance, which has increased to about 85 to 100 per cent in almost all grades, there has also been a significant improvement in punctuality, attentiveness and even the behaviour of the students. “In grades seven, eight and nine we don’t even have chairs to hold all the students,” she says.
She notes that the overall behaviour of the students has improved. “The aggressiveness, the fighting, the sleeping in classes has stopped since the programme,” she says.
The school’s garden, which now occupies a section of the facility which was once taken up by overgrown shrubbery, has become a significant part of not just the school community, but the wider Water Road community.
Apart from teachers taking their lessons down to the garden, sometimes even teaching Mathematics from outside the fowl coop, Mrs. Lewis hosts backyard gardening workshops at the school for interested persons of the community.
“We will give away extra seeds from our callaloo plants and teach persons how to do their own backyard gardening,” she says.
Mrs. Lewis is now working to expand the project, so it can benefit the entire school. At present about 125 students, who are mainly a part of PATH, benefit from the provision of both breakfast and lunch.
“I am noticing that more and more parents are coming in to ask if I can put their children on the programme, so I know the need is there,” she informs.
The teacher is hoping to host a fund-raising event at the school in order to expand the chicken coop, as well as to seek further assistance from non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Mrs. Lewis, who is a past student of the school, believes this is her way of giving back to the school and her community.
By Athaliah Reynolds, JIS Reporter