Students win Eco Challenge

provided Hanahan Middle School eighth-grader Johnna Wallace bonded with some of the pigs at Thornhill Farms.

Hanahan Middle School did its part to promote Eat Local Month by bringing national attention to a project on the topic.

For the third time in as many years, the students were awarded first place in the Lexus Eco Challenge. The program gives scholarships and grants to middle and high school teams across the country for creating innovative environmental projects. More than 400 schools entered this year.

The Hanahan Middle Eco Challenge Team learned they were winners just as April’s Eat Local Month kicked off.

For their project, the nine eighth-graders promoted local foods.

With help from Alcoa, Home Depot and Lowe’s, they built a greenhouse, complete with a rain barrel and compost bin, and planted more than 400 seeds of tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, basil, oregano, dill, parsley and flowering plants.

As their crop grew, they hosted seed-planting workshops for younger students in their school. They sold part of their crop and donated part through the Fields to Families program.

They went on farm tours, promoted local growers within their school, collected recipes from local chefs and launched a publicity campaign.

The team held a Food Truck Round-up and silent cookbook auction. They encouraged others to join them in eating local, and 87 families signed a pledge to do so at least once a week.

“I learned that even though we are kids, we really can make a difference,” said team member Jessica Young.

The project was judged on a PowerPoint presentation and photo gallery that documented their activities.

In their presentation, the students wrote: “Local farms are better for the environment because they are usually smaller in size and eco-conscious. There is less contamination, chemical runoff and soil degradation. Eating local also betters your health and supports the local economy!

“We felt this topic really encompasses a lot of things that we are passionate about. This is growing movement in Charleston and we wanted to do our part to make it even larger!

“Before this project, we didn’t realize how much eating local could not only help the environment, but also support our community. Eating local is an easy step to better the air and your health!”

Weeks after their win, the team continues to promote their cause, still tending to their garden and encouraging people to eat locally.

The school has been a top finisher in the Eco Challenge for the last three years under the leadership of teacher advisor Alexandra Davis.

Every year they come up with two new projects: one for the preliminary round and one for the finals. “I keep a list of possible projects that are hot topics,” Davis said. “We try to pick things that our students are going to care about, because Charleston cares about them.”

In a preliminary round last fall, the team worked to reduce air pollution in Hanahan. They joined the Environmental Protection Agency’s School Flag Program to increase public awareness of outdoor air quality conditions, and continue to monitor conditions daily, raising flags based on the Air Quality Index in front of the school to notify the community about outdoor air quality conditions.

Their other winning projects have included educating the community about the harmful effects of mercury contamination in soil and water, saving sea turtles, restoring wetland habitats and oyster reefs, and energy conservation.

The win brings a $15,000 prize: $10,000 for scholarships for the students, $3,000 for the school and $2,000 for Davis.

The school will use the winnings to purchase new recycling bins, a large composting bin and greenhouse supplies. Davis will use her portion to finance a work trip to the group’s Fields to Families garden and buy greenhouse supplies.

The club is one of the most popular at the school, and interested eighth-grade students have to apply to participate. The group, which meets before school on Tuesdays, also participates in local events such as beach cleanups.

“I didn’t realize how much eighth-graders could make a difference until I saw the team last year,” said Katelyn Wilson. “And then I knew that I wanted to be part of this year’s team.”

Other team members are Murray Burn, Parker Futrell, Adeline Nguyen, Anna Sieger, Madeline Vick, Johnna Wallace, Brittany Young and Jessica Young.

“This has been a great experience,” said Johnna. “When I signed up, I knew it would be.”

Other first-place teams were Arboga Elementary, Calif.; Clark Magnet High, Calif.; Miami Palmetto Senior High, Fla.; Leilehua High, Hawaii; Tates Creek Middle, Ky.; Whitehall Middle, Mich; and West Geauga High, Ohio.

To view the winning entries, visit www.scholastic.com/lexus.