Northeast students will get up-close lessons on healthy food

DANVILLE — In the last few years, Northeast Elementary students have been learning about eating healthy as part of the magnet school's health and wellness focus. They have studied good nutrition, snacked on fresh fruits and veggies and practiced making all kind of healthy snacks, among other things.

This year, students also are going to be getting hands-on lessons on growing healthy food thanks to a local company.

International Greenhouse Co. is partnering with the Danville Public School Foundation, the school district and other entities to build an 18-foot by 24-foot greenhouse at the school. Plans call for building the new interactive classroom on the north end of the school's property, at 1330 E. English St., in late August or early September.

"It's going to be such a wonderful tie-in," said Principal Cheryl McIntire, who sees endless applications across the curriculum. "We've talked about healthy foods for so many years now. This will let us provide the piece that has been missing. Students will get to see where their food comes from and how it's grown."

"We're super excited to be partnering with the school," said Chris Kirschner, the institutional sales associate for the Danville-based company, which has provided greenhouses for educational, institutional, retail, and research purposes throughout the world since 1993. "We think it will fit in well with what they've done."

In exchange for the greenhouse, Kirschner added, Northeast will develop a K-5 curriculum, which the company can provide other elementary schools that purchase its products.

Northeast, which runs on a balanced-calendar schedule, starts its new school year today. Kindergarten through fifth-graders attend a partial day today, and their first full day on Wednesday.

"We're ready," McIntire said, adding enrollment is currently at 265.

The greenhouse project got its start at a January breakfast for the public school foundation's 365 Club, said Bob Richard, the foundation's executive director. The 365 Club is the foundation's signature donor initiative.

When IGC President David George Jr., a 365 Club member, told Richard that the company was interested in donating one of its structures to a local elementary school, Richard immediately thought of Northeast.

The school has had health and wellness focus since 2007. And in 2010, it became the first elementary school in the United States to earn the Gold National Recognition Award from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which works to combat childhood obesity and empower kids to make healthy lifestyle choices.

"We began working on that," said Richard, adding the project grew into a community effort.

Besides IGC's "significant" donation of the greenhouse, Richard said, the foundation will cover the cost of the footings, greenhouse assembly and building a sidewalk between planting beds. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 538 is donating the labor to run electrical panels from the school to the greenhouse and Lowe's Home Improvement is donating the electrical materials.

The school district will cover the electrical costs in the greenhouse, and Northeast will cover incidental costs. In addition, the United Samaritans Medical Center Foundation's HALO Project has offered to donate seeds and the like.

"If any of these groups hadn't stepped up to the plate, this project wouldn't have happened," Richard said.

Fourth-grade teacher Lisa Unzicker will be the lead greenhouse teacher. Unzicker, who has gardened since she was a child and worked as a florist before becoming a teacher, already has planned a wide range of lessons and activities including planting flowers and vegetables that will be planted in a garden next to the greenhouse.

"They will be so excited; they love to have new experiences," she said of students, most of whom have never had the opportunity to grow anything. "They'll get to plant seeds, water them and watch them grow. I want to plant a variety of things — corn, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce. I'm really hoping it not only engages them in school but that it sparks a lifelong interest in gardening and eating healthy and staying physically active. Gardening is one of the best physical activities you can do."

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