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Progressive Voice: Uniquely Arlington

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

By Joan Horwitt

You may know that Arlington is geographically the smallest self-governing county in the U.S. It is also home to the country’s most famous cemetery. But what else makes Arlington truly unique?

To the short list, I would add the one-of-a-kind LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH program, a highly successful, home-grown school and multi-neighborhood collaboration to promote healthy eating and community engagement. Nowhere else in the country — to the best of my knowledge — do hundreds of elementary school children and neighbors come together in the spring and fall, grow a bountiful crop of organic greens and celebrate their harvest with a spectacular multi-ingredient Fiesta Salad extravaganza for more than 700 students, teachers and neighborhood volunteers.

It is now a common yet extraordinary sight at the Fiesta Salad celebration, held at Ashlawn Elementary School, to witness girls and boys vying with each other to see who can eat the most salad servings. We now have scores of stories from students and parents that indicate how attitudes and behavior about healthy eating can be transformed.

LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH, which spans three Ashlawn-connected neighborhoods, is a model that could and should be implemented countywide, in part to strengthen community engagement and because 26 percent of Arlington’s children are already overweight or obese even before they start kindergarten, according to a report in 2015 by the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families.

Starting eight years ago, LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH became a program of the nonprofit Reevesland Learning Center that I and other volunteers formed, inspired by the legacy of the late Arlington dairy farmer Nelson Reeves who tended an iconic vegetable garden adjacent to his farmhouse overlooking Bluemont Park. He became famous for sharing his crop and knowledge with neighbors. After his death in 2000, Arlington County purchased his property but his garden disappeared — until it was reimagined by local residents as the Reevesland Learning Garden, a centerpiece of the LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH program.

Every planting season in the Reevesland Learning Garden, and at two other sites, hundreds of Ashlawn students get excited about curriculum-based lessons in math, science and language arts while they plant organic seeds in raised beds that were built by volunteers. The seeds have colorful, intriguing names. “Tennis Ball,” a beautiful green Bibb lettuce, was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites at Monticello, and “Mayan jaguar” is an intriguing dark green romaine with maroon speckles. And students sometimes select red romaine seeds that were also used by NASA at the Space Station for a farming experiment in 2014. The students learn the different characteristic shapes of the lettuce leaves and why the darker the color, the more nutritious it is. This is a revelation for those only familiar with iceberg.

We have witnessed the educational power of student involvement and experiential learning among young children of diverse academic levels. But that is only part of the LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH story. The simultaneous participation of adults, both parents and non-parents alike, helps to reinforce the community value of growing and eating healthy food.

To enlist adult participation, we go door-to-door in the three neighborhoods surrounding Ashlawn, inviting neighbors to grow organic greens in their yards or gardens to promote healthy eating. Typically, more than a hundred sign up and, like the students, they select a seed variety of their choice. When they bring in their crop sealed in Ziploc bags several days before the Fiesta Salad celebration, they are often as excited as the students.

Yes, LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH is unique, but it should be commonplace throughout Arlington and beyond. The message is simple yet powerful: involve the kids when they’re young and give them a voice in the decision-making, reach out to neighbors and make it fun and you’ll have community-supported healthy eating on a scale that can really make a difference.

Joan Horwitt is a longtime Arlingtonian and one of the founders and president of the Reevesland Learning Center, which runs the LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH program in collaboration with Arlington Public Schools.

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