Riverview Early Childhood Center brings gardens back to life

More than 550 pounds of produce donated to food shelf

It had always been a dream of Robin Taaffe to have a garden to grow items for a food shelf.

 Mary Washburn (left), Robin Taaffe (center) and Paula Sullivan (right) worked with others to bring the gardens at Riverview Elementary School becoming Riverview Early Childhood Center back to life.

Mary Washburn (left), Robin Taaffe (center) and Paula Sullivan (right) worked with others to bring the gardens at Riverview Elementary School becoming Riverview Early Childhood Center back to life.

“I’ve volunteered at a food shelf and while they do a wonderful job, I noticed that they get a lot of left over produce,” Taaffe said. “Because I am a gardener I’m always thinking about fresh food and what would be the best way to get it to people.”

With Riverview Elementary School becoming Riverview Early Childhood Center (RECC), the door opened for Taaffe’s dream to come true.

Taaffe and Paula Sullivan, both RECC Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) parent educators, took over managing the former specialty school’s six boxed gardens in the spring of 2011. In the 10 months since the gardens were last used they grew wild; Taaffe and Sullivan had to reclaim the garden plots. The first year was full of trial and error.

“We learned the soil was in bad shape and that the deer love this place as much as people do,” Taaffe said referring to the Riverview campus that sits on a river bluff. The only thing to survive the deer’s visits to last year’s garden was 30 pounds of onions.

Thanks to the work of Dan Foss’s horticulture students from Champlin Park High School (CPHS) who prepared the soil, a new system to keep out the deer (a 7.5 foot high fence) and the volunteer efforts of Taaffe, Sullivan and other ECFE staff, more than 550 pounds of vegetables from the Riverview gardens have been donated to the Anoka County Brotherhood Council, Inc. (ACBC) food shelf so far this year.

Taaffe said they grew and donated tomatoes, green beans, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, carrots, beets, and onions. She said they also tried to grow pumpkins, but that didn’t go over very well.

“I’ve been researching about how to grow pumpkins, but it’s still pretty encouraging that even without the pumpkins we were able to grow almost 600 pounds of food,” Taaffe said. “Vegetables are a lot of water, but that’s still a lot of food.”

“The garden is just thriving,” Sullivan said. “I’ve never had a garden like this; it just went crazy.”

Mary Washburn, the ECFE site supervisor, said Sullivan also took the lead in getting parents and children involved with the garden. Sullivan said about 15 families volunteered to weed the garden and it was great to see parents with their young children take part in helping the garden to grow. Taaffe found that the children loved to dig and were ripe for their first garden experience.

Not only does helping care for the garden teach children about where food comes from, it also teaches them about healthy choices. As part of a “Parents, Kids and Preschool” class, the staff showed a film about hunger and Minnesota’s food shelves.

“We are educators,” Taaffe said. “We would love for this to be a jumping off point for education not only on hunger but vegetables are what we need to eat to be healthy; they are better than fatty foods.”

Taaffe and Sullivan feel like they went from zero to 60 miles an hour in a year, but they are already looking forward to next year’s garden. They are collecting leaves and grass for composting. With many neighborhood families using the school grounds to play, the women would also like to add signs to let the community know about the garden. They also want Foss’s students to know how important their work was.

“We want the students to know that they got us started and what they did made a difference,” Taaffe said. “The garden’s success is a great example of why the community working together is very important.”