Kudos: McMahon school teacher Scott Emery and others grow opportunities for students.

·4 min read

Jun. 7—LEWISTON — When Scott Emery began teaching kindergarten at McMahon Elementary School in 2014, his classroom window looked out on a few overgrown garden beds.

There were briar bushes and weeds several feet tall.

"I said to myself, something needs to be done," he told the Sun Journal last week.

Since then, Emery, with the help of St. Mary's Nutrition Center and the nonprofit Food Corps, which connects school children with healthy food, has turned the garden into a schoolwide endeavor. This past fall, an all-volunteer garden committee received funding to expand the number of raised beds at the school, and turn the gardens into a larger "outdoor learning space."

There are now seating options such as picnic tables and tree stump stools for students. Volunteers began planting in the beds last week and already have two beds full of potatoes, with the remaining beds planted with corn, kale and other veggies.

Emery, who is the school's response to intervention teacher, said when he first began his effort to revitalize the gardens, he reached out to St. Mary's and Food Corps for help.

"Through their help, we have grown the opportunities for the whole school in the garden," he said.

According to Maisie Campbell, service member at Food Corps, until the expansion this year, students in the upper grades did not have ready access to an outdoor classroom or garden space. The original school garden is on the north side of the building near the prekindergarten-through-first grade classrooms.

Due to the pandemic, outdoor spaces began to be highly sought by school districts.

Last year, Emery secured COVID-19 relief funds to add more beds and expand the school's outdoor learning space. Now, there are six new beds on the south side of the school, providing more access to garden space for upper grade students.

He and several teachers built and installed the beds last fall, and filled them with soil this spring.

"We have grown a lot with the garden but there is much work left to do," Emery said, adding that he and the garden committee have lofty goals. "In the near future, we envision orchard trees and shrubs, an irrigation system. Right now the garden is a learning garden but we would like to produce more food to offer it to the kitchen or a farmstand in the future."

Campbell said that while the school year is ending soon, Food Corps plans to have staff volunteers help with summer maintenance. There will also be 21st Century students participating in summer school programming.

"This year we were thrilled to expand the school garden," she said, adding that the new outdoor seating makes the space more accessible.

The seating was installed through a partnership with Lewiston's arborist, Steve Murch.

"In my two years here, I've really enjoyed bringing students out to the garden, doing in-class and after-school cooking lessons (before COVID) and bringing teachers together to form a garden committee," Campbell said. "Our students have so much fun digging in the dirt, learning about plants and bugs hands-on and enjoying food they prepared themselves."

Students this year also put together a "McMahon Family Cookbook" that was distributed to all student families through a grant from the USDA's Farm to School program.

Food Corps has been serving at McMahon for the past five years, through a partnership with St. Mary's Nutrition Center that places service members.

According to Rebecca Dugan from the nutrition center, the partnership began more than a decade ago with one service member at Longley. It has since expanded to have three service members total; two at Connors and one at McMahon. A garden program is also now underway at Connors.

Campbell said Emery deserves a lot of credit for his work to spearhead the garden and outdoor learning effort.

"Scott has always engaged his students in the school garden, rescuing the McMahon garden from years of neglect and weeds taller than his students," she said.

Because of the work, she said, students are now getting "hands-on, food-based lessons," including taste tests in the cafeteria to expose students to new foods and encourage trying new things.