ROSEVILLE — Sitting in the school courtyard, a group of about three dozen Fountain Elementary students hooted, hollered, clapped and cheered.
Rob Blehm, the man speaking to them, took it in with a wide smile. He calls them generation changers. It wasn’t talk of local sports teams, summer vacation, amusement parks or some teen celebrity that worked them into a frenzy — it was talk of vegetables.
Blehm is the director of Macomb Fresh, a nonprofit organization run out of the Hope Center and predominantly funded by United Way, that plants and helps maintain fruit and vegetable gardens at area schools.
On June 6, Fountain Elementary started theirs and each student in the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school had a chance to take part in the process and plant something. Before that, Blehm wanted to rev up the students to get them excited about what they were doing and relay to them how important they were for taking part in it.
“We have T-shirts now that say ‘Generation Changer,’ and that’s what I like to talk to the kids about — how important it is for them to be generation changers,” Blehm said. “I like to get them all hyped up about it.”
Revving up the students at Fountain Elementary was an easy task.
“This is basil; this is celery; this broccoli; this is onions; this is eggplant, snap peas, bell peppers,” Blehm said, holding up each plant as he said its name. He went down the list, showing the students the watermelon, pumpkin, hot pepper, corn, cherry tomatoes, butternut squash and yellow squash that they would plant that day.
“Green beans. Yellow beans. Tomatoes. Brussels sprouts.”
That’s when the students went wild. “I love brussels sprouts,” shouted one. “Woo woo,” cheered another with his hands cupped around his mouth. “They’re my favorite,” another said.
For a moment, Blehm seemed taken aback by their enthusiasm. It was the best response he could have imagined — and he told them that.
“Wow, you guys are amazing,” he said. “You really are generation changers. You remind me of my 5-year-old daughter. She loves to go into the garden and pick fresh Brussels sprouts to eat. What other vegetables and fruits do you like to eat?”
One student responded, “cauliflower.” Three others said they liked strawberries. Blehm didn’t have either on hand, but he promised to get some soon and bring them to the garden because getting kids to eat healthy food and teaching them where it comes from is the whole reason he started Macomb Fresh.
“My favorite is cherry tomatoes and I have two cherry tomato plants at home that I am growing right now,” said 10-year-old Cole Clanin. “They are in pots, but with just the plant, they are already this big. My mom said that we will have to get a really big pot because, when they grow, they will be taller than me.”
“It’s cool to eat fresh fruit and vegetables,” said 10-year-old Camron Byrne. “My favorite fruit is watermelon.”
“My grandma has a big garden like this,” said 11-year-old Alisyn Spiruda. “I love planting watermelon and pumpkins.”
Blehm’s goal is to create a generation of people as excited about fresh fruits and vegetables as the students at Fountain Elementary. It’s a goal he’s working toward one school at a time. Fountain is the 15th school in the county to start a Macomb Fresh garden.
“My goal is to get into all 296 in Macomb County, and then I’m taking this to all of Michigan,” he said, before adding that it wouldn’t be possible without all the people and organizations that have helped along the way. “We’ve had a lot of support. It’s been pretty surreal.”
United Way provided the $1,000 grant that helped Blehm get his start and continues to support the program. Hope Center allows Blehm to operate as a nonprofit under their umbrella, and local nurseries, greenhouses and farms donate plants, seeds and materials.
The Fountain garden is sponsored by Molina Health Care and received plant donations from Theut’s Flower Barn in Richmond and Eckert’s Greenhouse in Sterling Heights.
While Blehm will continue to make regular visits to the garden, Fountain Green Team Leader Kathy Giese’s summer garden club will handle much of the weekly tending. So far, the 13 students, and a few parents, have signed up for the club. In addition to working the garden, they’ll make stepping-stones, go through a six-week nutrition and health-awareness program from Michigan State University and build their own greenhouse out of clear plastic CD cases.
“They are going to learn not only academics from doing this, but also a life skill that will go with them for the rest of their lives,” Giese said. “It really is a generation changer. They are making the change by starting this garden today.”
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