When Orlando Torres walks around Lawrence, he can’t help but notice the presence of fast food in the community. “You are constantly bombarded with images and messages of fast food restaurants and unhealthy eating practices,” he says. Whether it’s McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Taco Bell, residents don’t seem to have good options for purchasing healthy and inexpensive food. Sadly, Lawrence has the top obesity rate in Massachusetts. When it comes to students, 46% of them in the city are either obese or overweight.
Orlando, a fourth grade teacher at Guilmette Elementary School in Lawrence, was compelled to do something about this alarming statistic. “I wanted to work with my students to educate them about their eating habits and to live a healthier lifestyle.” Rather than just teaching about it in the classroom, he decided to take a more hands-on approach. He applied to the Sandbox Education Innovation Challenge, a program that gives teachers in the Lawrence Public Schools a small grant to try out innovative approaches inside and outside the classroom. “I submitted a project called ‘The Best Part of the Planet Earth’ which aims to build raised beds on school grounds with the intention of selling fresh fruits and vegetables to students’ families and farmers markets at an affordable price.” There are projects like this at other schools across the nation, but what makes it innovative is that Orlando works with at-risk youth (individuals who exhibit academic, behavioral, or emotional problems).
Orlando was selected as one of the finalists for the Sandbox Challenge and used the money to purchase materials to build 4 raised beds, garden supplies, and seedlings at his school. He and ten of his students partnered with Groundwork Lawrence to execute the project. For many of these youngsters, this was the first time in their lives growing crops. Orlando saw multiple successes throughout the process. Not only did these students learn how to grow crops and change their eating habits, but he also saw an increase in their self-esteem.
When it came time to sell the crops at the farmers market, students learned how to market the products. They ended up making $50 in profit! Since starting the project, there has been a lot of momentum for Orlando and his students. In August, Congressman Joe Kennedy visited Lawrence as part of his Massachusetts STEM Tour, and Orlando and two of his students were chosen to talk about the project. Earlier this month, Orlando took third place at the Sandbox All Ideas Welcome Pitch Contest, and was awarded a $500 grant. The project even got a mention in the Eagle Tribune.
Orlando hopes to continue the project in the near future. “To change the obesity trend in Lawrence, I know we still have more work to do. Every spring, I hope to get more students involved, and help make this project citywide.”