“What’s an experiment?” Glen Widmer, outgoing principal of Walker Elementary School, asked a group of kindergartners heading to the school’s greenhouse on April 13.

One boy said something shyly, ending with “if it works.”

“Does it always work?” Widmer asked.

“Noooooooo!” the kindergartners all shouted at once. They then began talking excitedly about experiments they had done in their garden class.

In the greenhouse, the children gathered around a patch of spinach that survived the winter, picking leaves and eating them as they talked about the other vegetables that were growing there last fall: cucumbers, Swiss chard, carrots, “stuff that tastes like onions and looks like grass.”

Over the past five years, growing vegetables has become an integral part of the curriculum at the Liberty school.

“It’s all about getting the kids to think deeply about things,” Widmer said. “We’re not telling them stuff, they’re discovering stuff. And the kindergarten class can tell you about experiments they’ve done and what an experiment is. If we connect learning to things that kids really love, they can do incredible things at very early ages.”

When Widmer took the principal position at Walker and Troy Central schools in 2011, the greenhouse, built in 2000 with a grant from MBNA, was neglected; it was being used only for storage. He dreamed of getting it going again.

He had just come from teaching at Troy Howard Middle School, where he was involved with its garden program led by the district's then agricultural coordinator, Jon Thurston.

"What I needed was another Jon Thurston," he said.

What he found was FoodCorps, a national nonprofit then in its first year dedicated to creating healthy school food environments. The organization sends AmeriCorps volunteers, usually young workers between college and graduate school, to help schools start vegetable gardens and integrate them into their curriculum. The workers would go through a week of intensive training before being dispatched to schools around the country. Over that winter, Widmer secured funding and signed up to start the program in 2012.

Though the workers were not highly experienced, the formula worked.

Carolyn Wason, the district's final FoodCorps member whose term ends July 31, said, "I had zero teaching experience, and I have come to find that I have very little gardening experience — it’s a lot harder than I thought." Teachers were supportive and took care of class management during her lessons, she said, and there were many lesson plans left by previous FoodCorps members and online. However, she said she came up with most of the projects on her own, learning as she went. What she lacked in experience she made up with passion and creativity.

In one of Wason's projects, students asked questions about worms they observed in the garden. One asked why they come out after rain, and another asked why they live under the soil. This led to plates of worms on the students' desks, she said, and, after a discussion of ethical treatment of animals in experiments, tests to determine if the worms prefer darkness to light, or dry environments to wet ones.

The program began at Walker School with the first FoodCorps member meeting with each class once a week and leading projects in the greenhouse, cooking classes, and vegetable taste tests. Soon she started leading taste tests at other schools in the district.

Four years and two more FoodCorps members later, there is a hoop house at Morse Memorial School in Brooks, a greenhouse at Monroe Elementary School, raised beds and tilled areas at Troy Central School, and 11 raised beds, a greenhouse, and a 25-by-25-foot tilled area at Walker, as well as an extensive curriculum that ties garden projects to existing learning objectives.

Now these four schools are the first of 12 communities in the state to graduate from FoodCorps.

In the organization's three focus areas, integrating hands-on gardening projects into the curriculum, getting more local food on the school menu, and creating a school-wide culture of health, Michelle Erhard, FoodCorps' coordinator for Maine, said Regional School Unit 3 has achieved all the objectives the program set out. A "healthy-food thread" runs throughout the curriculum and throughout the hallways. "It's everywhere," she said.

The culture of health has extended to families and the broader community as well. The gardens and greenhouse have become a focal point that draws volunteers: Community members have built raised beds with students and tilled gardens, and whole families come to weed. In Troy, a parent brought a horse team to drag red pines out of the woods that were used to make a bridge and a frame for a raised bed.

“The program has had a nice ripple effect of kids learning to eat healthier and then going home and sharing recipes with their parents,” Wason said. “I’ve had so many parents express how important it is for them that their kids have this program. Being in a rural community, gardening and farming is so important and I think parents like to see that their kids are connected to the land in that way and getting outside.”

Peter Natale of Montville, parent of two students at Walker, described a recent community dinner put on by the students featuring vegetables they grew. “It was fantastic," he said. "The kids grew it, cooked it and served it. It gives them a sense of self-worth because they can say, look, I’ve grown this and I’m feeding it to you.”

In his own daughter, Abby, he sees a remarkable change. Wason has been a mentor to her and taught her to care for and nurture plants, he said. Abby now has seedlings growing in their house for the coming season.

Since the program started, he said, “She eats better and healthier, and cares about the community, and she has already decided what she wants to be in life: a farmer gardener, and live in Maine for the rest of her life. This is important for Maine to keep the farming community going.”

But with FoodCorps ending and Widmer leaving the district to take a principal position in Regional School Unit 71, the program is in need of new leadership.

After some debate, the RSU 3 Board of Directors recently added a new full-time garden teacher position to the budget. Other options considered were hiring an Ed Tech III or providing a small stipend to teachers to carry on the program themselves. The budget is up for voter approval June 13.

Widmer said he believes that, without a dedicated staff person, the program is likely to "fall apart."  Wason agreed, pointing out that teachers "do not have a lot of extra time." Widmer said he sees an Ed Tech III as a viable option, too.

“There’s a huge pool of dedicated, passionate, kid-centered people who want this kind of work so I think it's a great way to get that kind of people in the school,” he said.

Wason said the board’s decision was "incredible" and "the best possible solution."

"Possibly the only drawback is needing it to be a certified teacher, which would limit the pool in some ways," she said, "but it also offers so many other opportunities and incentives. There will be a steep learning curve at first, but whoever comes next will have no problem.”