Dr. Steven Shimotakahara stands with a volunteer at Madison Elementary where seven students began the pilot Gardening Program. The project will help them have fun growing vegetables and teach them to include them in their daily diet. 

COOS BAY — Seven students and volunteers are making a grassroots effort to change how people eat.

The Gardening Program has entered its pilot stage after six months of planning. On Monday, March 11, seven third graders at Madison Elementary built their own garden boxes with the help of seven adult volunteers, including Dr. Steven Shimotakahara.

The ear, nose and throat doctor from North Bend Medical Center was inspired to push this project forward after Coos County applied to be part of the Blue Zone Project. The Blue Zone Project was created from the “Blue Zones” novel by Dan Buettner after he ventured around the world to identify areas where people lived longer and more productive lives, discovering five places. The common characteristics that they shared are now promoted through the Blue Zones Project, which brings a team into a town or city to help embed those patterns of healthy living.

However, Coos County’s application for the designation was rejected.

“The idea for this pilot project is for kids to grow vegetables such as they want to eat them,” Shimotakahara said. “There’s so many forces in our society that encourage kids to not eat vegetables, like hamburgers and French fries, and this is a grass roots endeavor to make a change.”

Though the community failed to get the Blue Zone designation, Shimotakahara believes community members can still make healthy changes and achieve the same goals if they had received it.

“The idea is to have fun and make sure planting, growing and eating things is fun,” he said. “I think eventually it could grow into all sorts of different programs, spread into lower and higher grades.”

He hopes to involve other organizations such as the cancer and cardiovascular survivorship programs, as well as foster parents.

“It’s easy to do,” he said. “It’s not expensive. The boxes each cost $20 for lumber and screws. The idea is that there are no weeds and it retains a lot of water so you don’t have to water it every day.”

For the remainder of the school year, the pilot project will stay at Madison Elementary where each group will contain two students and two adults as they tend to their vegetables and watch them grow.

“We’ve had a lot of support from the Coos Bay School District, so next year I think we can ramp it up and spread it to other schools,” he said. “From my point of view, this is a multi-year project. Next year it will be much bigger.”

Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or by email at jillian.ward@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.