Jul 31, 2017
Planting the Seed

This article first appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

It’s common knowledge that athletic trainers rarely hesitate to get their hands dirty. Erin Cernuda, ATC/L, Athletic Trainer at Miami Sunset (Fla.) Senior High School, has taken this literally by starting a garden club on campus. As a result, both athletes and students have benefited from the fruits and vegetables of the club’s labors.

For the athletes especially, Cernuda feels the garden has had a nutritional impact. “There are athletes who come to the school and don’t have food,” she says. “They might qualify for free lunch, but if they have that at 10:30 a.m., they are starving by the time practice rolls around. Instead of having them get candy or chips from the vending machines, I bring some produce from the garden into the athletic training room. It gives them a quick and healthy snack to tide them over until dinner.”

Others on Miami Sunset’s campus have also reaped what the garden club has sown. Marine biology, zoology, and English classes frequently incorporate the garden into lessons, and the food from it is put to good use. “The produce has gone to our culinary arts program, where students learning to be chefs can use it in their cooking,” says Cernuda. “And some of it has gone to the cafeteria to help make nutritious school lunches.”

The garden originally took root thanks to members of Miami Sunset’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), who first approached Cernuda, the group’s sponsor, with the idea to grow their own food. “One premise of the SAAC is that if athletes want to enhance their school experience, they need to take leadership and do something about it,” says Cernuda, a former biology teacher and current full-time athletic trainer who’s passionate about improving the school. “I keep telling them to speak up and set an example, so I couldn’t turn them down.”

To formally start the club, Cernuda and the SAAC put out applications to gauge interest. They opened the club to more than just athletes, believing all students could benefit from supplementing unhealthy food items with fruits and vegetables. About 50 applications were returned, and the club now has 25 members, which includes about 10 student-athletes.

Then, Cernuda and the SAAC had to find funding for the club. Like many schools, Miami Sunset didn’t have a lot of money to spare, so Cernuda looked elsewhere. A donation from the local Rotary Club got the ball rolling, and Cernuda supplemented the rest of the garden’s financial needs by setting up a page on the crowdfunding site donorschoose.org. Then, individuals and companies were able to view the details of the garden project and choose whether to support it.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the availability of alternative funding options,” Cernuda says. “If you work in a school, you can find so many by searching online. It’s just a matter of putting in the effort.”

Once the club was established, the administration allotted a prime fenced-off space for the garden in front of the school. All that was left to do was fill it. “The students did all of the planning,” says Cernuda. “They came up with lists of herbs, fruits, and vegetables they wanted to grow.

“Then, we discussed each item together,” she continues. “If I knew something they picked wouldn’t grow here, I asked them, ‘Why do you think this will be successful?’ It was a good learning experience because they got to understand our climate and why we chose certain items.”

The garden now grows cauliflower, broccoli, kale, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash. There’s also a box of herbs and plants that boosts the local butterfly population. Other components of the garden include hydroponic and aquaponic units. Set up like fish tanks, the aquaponic systems recycle the water to care for a grow bed that is on top. Three additional aquaponic units were placed in special education classrooms within the school.

Maintaining the garden and all of its features requires a group effort. “We set up subcommittees for each area of the garden based on each student’s interest,” says Cernuda. “Once or twice a month, we have workdays where everyone comes in and has a job, like weeding or watering. But between those times, if a particular bed needs something, I let that subcommittee know, and they get it done.

“If we get stuck or have a problem, I have the students research for solutions,” she continues. “This way, they really take ownership of the learning experience. As a result, I think the kids know more than I do about gardening at this point.”

This knowledge is empowering, Cernuda believes, and she thinks the garden has had a tremendous impact so far. “High school students and athletes tend to be open-minded and adventurous, and they can create amazing things-like our garden-when given the chance,” she says. “They will work hard, grow new types of foods, and try just about anything as long as they are in a safe and welcoming environment. The athletic training room is already a safe haven for athletes at our school, and now the garden is, too.”

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