CARIBOU, Maine — Each year educators from the Aroostook County Regional Gifted and Talented Organization select a deserving student as the County’s Distinguished Student. This year Riley McNeal, a fourth-grade student from Teague Park School in Caribou was named the 2011 Aroostook Student of the Year. She also was named co-winner of the Maine Educators of the Gifted and Talented’s statewide Distinguished Student Award.
Both honors were awarded in part because of a project McNeal developed, beginning last year, to grow and harvest organic vegetables for her school lunch program.
“During the 2009-10 school year, my Gifted and Talented Program teacher, Mrs. Beth Alden, encouraged me to organize a project,” said McNeal. “I did a project on how to include organic and locally grown vegetables into the school lunches. This project included meetings with school administrators to explain my plan and once I got their approval, students at my school voted on their favorite vegetables. The vegetables we got were from my grandfather’s farm. Some friends and I helped pick corn and potatoes.”
“This project has been important to me for several reasons,” McNeal said recently. “First, I love helping things grow. I think it is interesting to watch plants grow and eventually produce food. Next, this project gave me a chance to work with my school community. For example, I wrote a plan and Mrs. Alden and I met with several school administrators including our school’s principal, our food services coordinator, and even our superintendent.”
Once her plan was approved, McNeal organized a schoolwide vote so other students could choose which organic vegetables were their favorites.
“I learned how hard it is to do a speech, because I gave one in front of the entire third grade,” said McNeal. “Working on this project was fun because my friends encouraged me, we had fun harvesting and preparing the food, and everyone thought the food was delicious. The best part of this project was getting to spend time with my grandfather, who has been a farmer for almost 40 years and has lots of knowledge and experience.”
“I am very interested in this topic because I have loved to be in the fields with all the crops since I was little,” stated McNeal on her project application. “Farm-fresh vegetables are much better for you because they are all-natural and have not had anything added to them like salt, sugar or other chemicals.”
McNeal said she “chose to do this project because I love watching things grow. By doing this project, my friends got to help me all along the way. They got to learn about what I have been learning about my whole life, which was so awesome for me. I feel very lucky to have been able to eat farm-fresh vegetables and wanted other people to have the same experience. Also, getting to plant something in the ground and watching it grow makes me feel like I’m doing my part to help the Earth and make it and all of its people healthier.”
She also indicated that the project has influenced her plans for the future.
“When I get to high school, I plan to join the Future Farmers of America. Also, when I grow up I plan to learn about the nutrients in foods and help kids get their nutrients by becoming a pediatrician,” she said.
“This project has taught me that organic foods are best for children’s growth and as a pediatrician, I will encourage families to choose organic foods,” added McNeal.
The Maine Educators of the Gifted and Talented’s statewide Distinguished Student Award will be presented to McNeal and the other co-winner in November in Lewiston. The co-winner is Matthew Nichols, a sixth-grader at Hermon Middle School, who developed a botany project, which involved planting 96 trees and teaching 18 botany lessons to fifth-graders in his school district.