Eat, Learn, Grow

Connecting Children to Local Food Systems


Story by Candace Romano, MCFI Communications Coordinator


Milwaukee Center for Independence’s Little Sprouts University grew out of the need to help children served by MCFI’s programs learn about nutritious food. The brainchild of Michelle Black, health and wellness manager at MCFI, the Little Sprouts U. teaches children about healthy eating from the ground up.

“Many Milwaukee children we serve through our nutrition services program live in poverty,” Black said. “They don’t have safe places to play outside. And 20 percent have a special need or disability.”

Black, a registered dietitian, said many live in a “food desert,” an impoverished neighborhood with little or no access to a large grocery store that offers fresh and affordable food needed to maintain a healthy diet.

Instead, she said, they have easy access to fast food and corner stores, and their diets consist of food that is high in fat, sugar and salt.

“For those reasons,” Black said, “studies have shown that children growing up in Milwaukee have higher than average rates of obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases.”

MCFI’s children’s programs include: the School for Early Development and Achievement (SEDA), a public school chartered through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; a SmartBaby program, for expectant moms; Birth to Three, an early intervention education program; the Pediatric Skilled Nursing program, for children with complex medical issues; the Wells Street Academy, an educational program for children with complex medical needs; and summer camps for children with disabilities and autism.

“Students are connected to other parts of the gardening process. They learn about bees and other insects and what they do to fruits and vegetables. They also learn about how weather impacts our food supply.”
-Michelle Black, MCFI

Little Sprouts University coincides nicely with MCFI’s mission to “assist individuals and families with special needs to better live and work in the community,” Black said.

“Little Sprouts University really supports the work we are doing at SEDA as well,” said Tracey Sparrow, MCFI Vice President of Children’s Programs. “We know that good nutrition is essential to brain growth, so having the children eating fresh fruits and vegetables – especially ones they have grown themselves – helps us to focus on that critical component of our program.”

It also meshes well with MCFI’s Nutrition Services programs, which employ and train people with special needs and barriers to employment in the hospitality field.

Additionally, it provides daily meals to more than 8,000 impoverished children in more than 40 different schools and day cares in Milwaukee. Additionally, MCFI Nutrition Services participates in the Summer Food Service program, providing free meals at parks, churches, schools and day care centers to children living in poverty. Black started the Little Sprouts University pilot program in 2010 with the children enrolled in SEDA with plans to eventually expand the gardening and nutrition program.

The focus was on the kindergarten to second-grade students, and included lunchroom, classroom and playground experiences.

The program was implemented in three different phases. “The first step was to raise awareness and the importance of nutrition,” said Black.

Instruction focused on the importance of eating fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods.

“It was important to keep the instruction food-based, positive and fun,” she said. “We did everything from taste-testing new fruits and vegetables to making smoothies right in their classrooms.”

MCFI4Step two was introducing students to indoor micro-farming, or gardening indoors – a must with Wisconsin’s weather, Black said. “I wanted to be able to implement the program no matter what the weather was like outside. Indoor microfarms also allowed us to include all the students regardless of their special needs.”

The advantages of teaching micro-farming, she said, is that it’s small and mobile – plants and gardening utensils can be brought to the students. It’s also inexpensive, doesn’t require outdoor space and – important for the kids – it’s fun.

“What child doesn’t like to play in the dirt a bit?” Black asked. 

The third stage was gardening outdoors, which had its distinct challenges and required more planning – and more supplies, like raised garden beds, and a convenient water source.

“We really had to think through this step,” Black said. “’What is the purpose? How will the food be used? Is the space safe? Is it accessible to everyone? Those questions all had to be answered.”

Those challenges were easily outweighed by the benefits of outdoor gardening, said Black. “Luckily everyone at the organization was on board and the saying is true: where there is a will, there is a way. I truly cannot say enough how much I appreciate our President Dr. Howard Garber and Vice President of Nutrition Services Heidi Chada for their support of this program.”

Benefits of this program were clear. For one, the students were able to grow greater amounts of food and have more variety that could add to their school lunch menus, she said. It also connects children with nature and gets them outdoors and moving.

“Being outdoors allows the lessons to be more interactive, too,” she said. “Students are connected to other parts of the gardening process. They learn about bees and other insects and what they do to fruits and vegetables. They also learn about how weather impacts our food supply.

“And, being urban children, many really had no concept about farming, how plants grow and where food comes from,” she said.

Children used vegetables from the garden in their meals, and they tried “exotic” foods, like cilantro, basil and green onions. “I was surprised to see kids snacking on green onions as if they were carrot sticks,” she said.

MCFI2“Children also ate more of their fresh fruit and vegetable snacks,” said Black. “My greatest joy was seeing one of our students out in the community over the summer. He excitedly reported to me that his new favorite foods were spinach and red peppers.”

That’s not to say the beginnings of the Little Sprouts University didn’t face growing pains. It can be difficult for teachers to take time out of their day, or incorporate the garden into their lessons. Maintaining the gardens – weeding and harvesting – wasn’t always easy, either, and there was occasionally a theft or some damage from the weather or unexpected visitors.

“Last summer’s drought also took a toll on the garden, and students had to take their watering duties seriously,” said Black. “But, again, that was a teachable moment.”

Beyond that, MCFI ‘s health and wellness programming includes outpatient nutrition counseling, organizing school nutrition teams, assisting community partners in developing wellness policies, and holding Lunch and Learns, classroom instruction and educational sessions for parents.

“Eating healthy is a family affair,” said Black. “It takes commitment from many players and all of the adults in a child’s life. Through our children’s programs, we are also able to offer monthly classes to families so that together we can learn how to eat healthy despite living in the city. In each class we provide a healthy meal, nutrition education and a sense of community.”

The Little Sprouts University, located at MCFI’s Main Campus – the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building at 2020 W. Wells St. – is an extension of that commitment to health and wellness, Black said. 

This year, MCFI will be expanding its gardens in collaboration through the Victory Garden Initiative. VGI is a local grassroots organization that is dedicated to teaching and promoting urban permaculture, building urban gardens and organizing communities.

“VGI is an amazing resource, and we are so excited to be part of their Raised Garden Bed Blitz,” Black said.

“Milwaukee has one of the highest infant mortality rates,” she said. “This city is in a health crisis. The Little Sprouts University is one small step to help reverse that unfortunate trend.

“I believe that healthy children grow up to be healthy adults that have healthy children,” she continued. “In the future I hope we’ll be able to bring this pilot program to all of our community partner schools in the city.”

And Black is excited that there are so many nutrition-driven initiatives in Milwaukee. She mentioned the urban farms and gardens that are cropping up throughout the city; the popularity of Growing Power in Milwaukee, which provides hands-on training and demonstrations that show people how to grow food and provides city residents access to healthy, high quality local foods; the Fondy Food Center, which supports small-scale Wisconsin farmers to ensure the supply of fresh food to Milwaukee, offers cooking-based nutrition education for youth and adults, and hosts a farmers market from May to November; and the Winter Farmers Market held November through mid-April at the Wisconsin State Fair.

“There are opportunities for collaboration and the exchange of ideas,” Black said. “We all can strengthen and inspire one another.”

Planting Guide

MichelleheadshotSuggestions for Indoor Micro-farming

*Stick to Green Leafy Vegetables that can be harvested as Microgreens

  • Leaf Lettuce
  • Basil
  • Sunflower Sprouts
  • Radish Sprouts
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Broccoli Sprouts
  • Spinach
  • Beet Greens
  • Kale

Suggestions for Outdoor Gardening in a School Setting

*Focus on foods that will be ready to harvest when the children return from summer break

  • Garlic- Plant in fall harvest in the early summer
  • Beets
  • Eggplant
  • Tomato
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Kale
  • Collards
  • Squash (if space allows!)
  • Watermelon (if space allows!)

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