NORRIDGEWOCK — When students at Mill Stream Elementary School returned to classes this week, they also picked up on a community garden project that began in the spring. 

The garden, which members of the community and some students have cared for over the summer, is now full of vegetables that students harvested on Thursday to donate to the Norridgewock Warming Center at the First Congregational Church.

Andria Alexson, 11, said that after being away from the garden all summer she was happy to return.

“I think it’s great that we can help people in need. It makes me feel good inside,” she said.

The garden, which was started with a $500 grant from the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative awarded to the school in February, has helped students learn about the natural world and encouraged them to become involved in the community, said their teacher Sharon Kimball. She estimates it has produced more than 500 servings of fresh vegetables so far this year and hopes the students can continue to harvest through September.

Kimball, who also wrote the application for the grant, said the idea originated from a reading project about soup kitchens, and students wanted to help the hungry in their own community.

The warming center, which provides meals for the elderly, homeless and people on fixed incomes on a weekly basis, runs on donations, which are usually canned goods or non-perishable items, said Kim Richards, an education technician at Mill Stream School and a volunteer at the warming center.

“This has been a true benefit for people. We don’t usually have this,” she said of the collection of tomatoes, cucumbers, turnips and other vegetables.

Mill Stream was one of eight recipients of grants totaling more than $3,000 for community gardens in the spring, said Denise Robinson, nutrition educator at the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative. She said the grants are awarded based on how much money is needed for the projects, how many people will be involved and where they can have the greatest impact.

They are part of a program the collaborative runs with the New Balance Foundation called Move More Kids, which encourages physical activity and promotes good nutrition.

In Maine, 29.5 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese, according to the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health. Only 32 percent age six to 17 play a sport, exercise or participate in physical activity for at least 20 minutes everyday, according to the center.

Robinson said the garden encourages healthy eating and outdoor activity, and that it has been great to see the progress at the Norridgewock garden.

“They started completely from scratch and now they have such a big garden producing so many fruits and vegetables,” she said.

One of the challenges to keeping school gardens, which are growing in popularity, is finding a way to care for them over the summer, said Robinson. “A lot of schools start their seeds inside in the winter and it is a great science lesson, but come summer there is no one around to actively take care of them,” she said.

During the school year between 25 and 30 students worked on the garden each week, said Kimball.

Vacation and no transportation to the garden limited  participation during the summer, she said. The Mill Stream garden was fortunate to have a supportive community outside of the school to help care for the garden during the summer, she said.

“We had volunteers and the students with their extended families. Whomever was around would pitch in,” she said.

Members of the community such as the Lancaster family, who live next door to the garden on Willow Street, have been a large part of its upkeep. Kari Lancaster, who has five children that attend the Mill Stream school, said the garden has been a great asset to her family.

Over the summer she said the kids ride their bikes there to weed or tend the garden in other ways.

During the school year they go to the garden on Thursdays with other students, but over the summer Lancaster, 42, said the whole family was involved and they were constantly at the garden.

“I’ll come over whenever I see the weeds get high or if someone from the church is mowing the grass I’ll come make sure the plants are out of the way. Sometimes I come mow ahead of time, just around the garden to make sure nothing gets disrupted,” she said.

Kimball said she plans to apply for another grant through the Move More Kids program, but that even without it she plans to continue the garden.

“We will find a way. I think this garden has forged a great relationship with the community and the kids really love it,” she said.

Rachel Ohm —  612-2368
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