By Carina Olivetti

The Montessori Children’s Room in Omaha, Nebraska is a local example of a sustainable food system. Montessori Children’s Room is a private school with a student population of 160, 18 teachers, and two kitchen staff. The Montessori education system is unique with its five core principles, which commonly incorporates gardening and outdoor learning in its curriculum. Student ages range from 2½-11 years old. 

Rachel Schiele is the Outdoor Classroom Teacher at the Montessori Children’s Room. Her background in organic farming/ranching and home gardening prepared her well for this role. The following is a short interview with Rachel on what the Montessori Children’s Room is doing in their sustainable food system. Sharing stories is important for growing sustainable food systems and building relationships with each other. 

What does the Montessori Children’s Room (MCR) growing space look like and what do you grow? 

MCR has about a half-acre of land. A fair amount of land is dedicated to native pollinator plants. A small greenhouse is used for seed starting and cold stratifying native plants. There are 14 raised beds for growing food. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, a plethora of greens, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, beets, turnips, carrots, watermelon, cantaloupe, asparagus, garlic, popcorn, and broccoli, are what is typically grown. An apricot tree, apple, strawberries, and serviceberries provide perennial fruit harvest. Drip irrigation is used for efficient watering. Everything is grown organically with soil amendments of Hillside Solutions compost, feather meal, sea bird guano, and others depending on results from soil tests that Rachel and her students administer. 

What are a few examples of outdoor classroom lessons? 

In the summer months it is the sole responsibility of the Outdoor Classroom Teacher to maintain the MCR gardens. During the school year the children help with everything. Garden activities are modified depending on which age group has outdoor class. The students help prep beds, spread compost and other soil amendments, harvest veg, collect seeds, tag monarch butterflies, as well as start and transplant seeds/seedlings. In addition to pollinator beds there are 2 rain gardens for teaching lessons on ecosystem services. One of the ongoing projects is collecting native plant seeds, sowing them in flats, caring for the seedlings through the cold stratification period, and then using them for a plant sale fundraiser in early spring. 

What does your compost system look like? 

MCR contracts with Hillside Solutions for their organic recycling. Three 33-gallon trash containers are utilized for food waste and garden debris and picked up once a week. Approximately 10 bags of Hillside Solutions compost are delivered to MCR each year for soil enhancement when needed. 

What kind of storage does your school have? 

MCR has one small deep freezer and a commercial upright freezer for produce that gets preserved. This has been sufficient for the produce preserved.

How many lbs. and what types of food did you preserve? 

In 2023, 1,000 lbs. of produce were harvested. About forty percent of that produce was eaten fresh with the remainder preserved by freezing. The 2023 harvest was up 200 lbs. from the year before. Staggered planting is used for later harvest so vegetables like cucumbers can be eaten fresh when students are present. Whole Roma tomatoes, peppers, blanched beans and broccoli, shredded zucchini, beets, squash, roasted cherry tomatoes, berries, apricot with citric acid and sugar are the main fruits and veg preserved. Food in freezer bags stays good for about a year, although the school usually runs low or out before school lets out for summer.

What are some examples of dishes served throughout the growing season? And dishes with preserved foods?

Head Chef Margy Simons and Sous Chef Miss Andrea do an excellent job creating nutritious meals from the MCR mini farm. When greens are in season, fresh salads are served often. The chefs make various soups, casseroles, mac n cheese with squash, beets in brownies, homemade French bread, and zucchini muffins. Lots of homemade marinara and tomato-based dishes are created from the abundance of tomatoes grown. Knowing the ingredients and being creative with the dishes is important when feeding children. Putting beets in the brownies is a fantastic way to get kids familiar with less popular vegetables.  

What are the major takeaways from this program?

“It is so important to show children where their food comes from and how it is grown. If I influence even just one child to have a passion for growing food and loving nature, then I’ve done my job well.” ~ Rachel Shiele 

Children enjoy eating vegetables straight out of the garden. Especially, when they grew it themselves. Lessons learned outdoors in a garden or nature setting are priceless and harder to learn in books. Rachel continues to learn and adapt in each new growing season, as is certainly true for every gardener/grower out there. 

A big thank you to Rachel for sharing the Montessori Children’s Room story with us! 

In closing, one of the biggest topics in our changing climate is food systems. This includes but is not limited to food security, sustainable agriculture, food loss and waste, nutrition, and environment. The importance of growing and eating local foods is not only for the health of the planet but for the human body as well. Positive impacts of growing your own food are reduced carbon emissions, typically less water use, hopefully little to no use of synthetic fertilizers, better nutritional value, and better tasting food. Gardening and urban farming are at their best when paired with a composting operation. The city of Lincoln, NE developed a Local Food System Plan for 2023-2027. The four community goals are: 1. Increase and ensure access to healthy food for all. 2. Invest in a thriving local food and farm community to increase local food production and food security. 3. Promote food production practices that protect soil, water, and air. 4. Reduce food waste. The Montessori Children’s Room of Omaha, Nebraska is doing a wonderful job working towards these goals on a small scale. Imagine a Nebraska where this kind of sustainable food system is practiced widely. 

 

If you want to get involved, share your story, or learn more about food waste reduction, composting, sustainable food systems, the Lincoln Local Food Plan, or composting, contact Carina Olivetti at [email protected].  

If you want to learn more about the Montessori Children’s Room or the Montessori education method, go to https://childrensroom.net/campus/# or https://amshq.org/About-Montessori/History-of-Montessori