February 22, 2019

Growing literacy in a living laboratory

By digging in to gardening and nutrition, Carolyn Garnett shows the power of education through volunteerism.

With focused organization, a West Linn, Oregon, school garden program has blossomed, teaching students how to grow food … that doesn’t come in wrappers.

Carolyn Garnett, a physician assistant at Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas, Oregon, won a national service award for creating the garden literacy program at her children's school.

"There are many facets of the garden program that are beneficial to children's education," said Garnett, who works in pediatric orthopedics. "But from my career point of view, if we can encourage healthy eating in children, then I'm helping the cause."

Garnett is one of 14 Kaiser Permanente employees from around the country to receive the David Lawrence Community Service Award for championing outstanding volunteer activities and initiatives to improve health. The award is named in honor of physician David M. Lawrence, a former chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente.

Garnett's involvement in the garden literacy program at West Linn's Cedaroak Park Primary School began in 2015.

"There was a garden program, but it was very loose and haphazard," Garnett said.

A community champion


Cedaroak Park Primary School students prune, plant, and learn more about the food we grow and eat.


She saw potential and began dedicating about 500 hours per year to expand the program and keep it running smoothly. She tackled administrative tasks, volunteer coordination, outreach, and of course garden maintenance, pruning, and planting.

Thanks to her fundraising and grant-writing efforts, the school has hired a professional science teacher for the garden program. All 300 of Cedaroak's students receive lessons that apply science and math in the living laboratory of the 5,000-square-foot garden.

"Even in the middle of February, you can go out in the garden and pick something and taste it," Garnett said. "The kids learn food doesn't come in wrappers."

Given that her youngest child, who is 10, will finish at Cedaroak this year, Garnett is mentoring someone to take over as chairperson of the garden literacy program so it will continue after her family moves on.

She also has a leadership role with the West Linn Eco-School Network to share what Cedaroak has learned so other schools can create their own garden programs.

School gardens offer an indirect way to help curb the growing childhood obesity epidemic, Garnett said. "Kids start to make connections with wholesome foods — that this is a radish and it grows in the ground and I can try it. Healthy eating makes more sense to them."