Students at Desert Garden Montessori have a healthy new addition to their already hands-on learning atmosphere - an organic garden. On Wednesday morning students dressed up in straw hats and flowered gardening gloves and began planting organic radishes and lettuce in one of their five planting beds. They also learned to make aloe vera smoothies from their aloe harvest with the school's organic chef, Cassie Tolman. "Actually eating our harvest and using it to cook food for lunch is our goal," said Shetal Walters, owner and director of Desert Garden Montessori. "There's something about a child who picks a watermelon off the vine and eats it - they don't waste any of it." The program, which stemmed from an idea of parent Beth Ellenby to serve organic snack items instead of packaged and processed snacks in the classroom, is new to the school this fall. Students begin each school day with garden class from 8 to 8:30 a.m., taught by environmental educator Judy Webster. Students can also participate in a morning yoga session during garden class or go on a garden tour with Webster. The garden is also open from 8:30 to 11:45 a.m. for teachers to bring their classes to work with the crops. "The question I ask the kids is, 'Where does the Cheeto grow?', and they really don't know and neither do their parents," Walters said. "That's why it's inspiring. Now they can shop and actually know what a whole food is." At Desert Garden Montessori, mealtime is more than just eating, it is an experience. China is set at lunch tables and students are encouraged to take time to experience each food item they eat. "It's not about memorizing facts, and it's not about taking a test," Walters said. "These kids will remember because they experience it, and that's what Desert Garden Montessori is all about." Tolman will begin using harvest when cooking school lunches this winter. Webster, who has been teaching at Desert Garden Montessori for seven years, left the classroom this year in order to do the project. "Each week we introduce a guest - we've had rosemary, basil and aloe vera - and pair it with a writing exercise," Webster said. "Each student tastes it raw, and then Cassie comes in and teaches a recipe. Last week we made fresh pesto with the basil, and the kids write the recipes down in their journals." Walters' ultimate goal is to evolve her school into a high school and her garden into a farmers market, where students can sell their organic produce to the community. "It's a challenge because it can be expensive," Walters said. "But in the end, we will be saving money. Students used to eat snacks that came in boxes, but now they can eat fresh grains and fruit." Corinne Frayer can be reached at (480) 898-7917 or at cfrayer@aztrib.com.

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