BLACKFOOT —There is a 3,400-square-foot garden located outside of the Lillian Vallely School, and Principal Jeff Nauman believes it’s one of the most important teaching tools the school for Native American students has to offer.

    In fact he started the garden using his personal funds last year because he felt it could help students better apply math and science skills, and provide invaluable hands-on education about growing and eating healthy foods.

    “We want to teach them how to go home and raise gardens, improve their eating and reduce their reliance on prepackaged foods,” he said.

    Last year the school raised pumpkins and sweet corn in the garden, but thanks to a $2,000 grant from the Idaho State Department of Education, it is now planning to expand the program.

    Lillian Vallely is one of 15 Idaho schools that received state funding for gardens this year.

    Melissa McGrath, public information officer for the Idaho State Department of Education, said the money allows schools to offer innovative educational activities and even provide supplemental foods for the school lunch program.

    Locally, Lillian Vallely will use the funding to improve its existing garden. Students will be able to grow raspberries, sweet corn, pumpkins and winter squash this year, Nauman said. In addition, they will design and build raised beds that students can fill with whatever seeds they choose.

    As part of the grant, each student will also receive a “salad-bar bucket,” in which they can grow salad foods throughout the summer.

    “They will get it started at school before summer and then take it home to keep and tend over the course of the summer,” Nauman said, adding that the activity will encourage students and their families to eat better.

    Nauman said the garden program not only helps students apply the math, science and health skills they are taught in school, but also addresses other important issues.

    He said Native Americans are more susceptible to diabetes, and the school has launched several programs, including fundraisers, guest lecturers and even glucose testings for the students and their families, to help combat the problem.

    “We consider Native American students’ biggest health challenge to be diabetes,” Nauman said, adding that the school garden fits right in with their awareness efforts.

    The school is planning to work with the extension office and diabetes center in Fort Hall as part of the garden program in an effort to better educate students and their families about diabetes, Nauman said.

    That’s one of the reasons the Department of Education awarded one of the grants to Lillian Vallely, McGrath said.

    “Lillian Vallely serves students on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation and the focus of the federal grant this year was to work closely with tribal schools,” she said.

    Nauman said the produce will be used for school activities and to also benefit mission groups who spend time at the Christian elementary school during the summer. School officials also hope to sell some of the produce to the community to help raise funds to continue the garden after the one-year grant runs out.