John Muir School, a kindergarten- through eighth-grade program in the Ashland School District, was one of three schools in Oregon to receive an annual state wellness award in recognition for its commitment to well-balanced nutrition and physical education.

John Muir School, a kindergarten- through eighth-grade program in the Ashland School District, was one of three schools in Oregon to receive an annual state wellness award in recognition for its commitment to well-balanced nutrition and physical education.

The Oregon Department of Education on Monday announced the 2012 Oregon School Wellness Awards, which each carry a $2,500 cash prize. Elisa Tacconi, principal and physical education teacher, said John Muir's prize will be split evenly between the school's garden, P.E. and nutrition programs and will help fund new recess equipment.

The other two schools to win awards were Bonanza in Klamath County and James John Elementary in Portland, said Christine Miles, ODE communications director.

Tacconi said the staff works hard to integrate nutritional education into its daily lessons and conversation. The school also integrates comprehensive physical education and concentrates on those that keep kids the most active.

Kindergarten through fourth-graders take a weekly Friday hike, usually in Lithia Park, while older students make a short trip up Dead Indian Memorial Road to Earth Teach Forest Park.

Students also have planted trees in the Ashland Watershed and along Bear Creek, Tacconi said.

"We have a very physically fit group of kids. "… It's a plus, because fitness and activity are linked to improved academic scores," she said. "The students can be settled and focused when they're in class, because they get lots of physical activity throughout the day."

Students at John Muir care for a quarter-acre garden along with their peers at Ashland Middle School, which they share a building with.

Gema Soto, Ashland School District food service director, said the veggies from the garden are "fabulous."

Every school in the district has a community garden, she said, but not all produce enough food to supply the cafeterias, which started integrating school garden-grown produce into their menus last year.

The Muir/AMS garden offloaded 61 pounds of onions, green beans and carrots last September, said Soto, its largest contribution of the year so far.

"During the growing seasons, fall and spring, we can at least count on one delivery a week from them," said Soto, though most are much smaller loads. "They do a pretty good job."

Tacconi said students also eat their afternoon snacks straight from the garden during the growing season, and staff occasionally fires up the courtyard's cobb oven to cook a pizza topped with freshly pulled produce.

"We'll bring in a platter of cherry tomatoes "… they'll just eat those vegetables like it's candy," said Tacconi. " We have a lot of families who value good nutrition and organic gardening — it's kind of a communitywide philosophy here."

Tacconi said students already have started planting garlic and peas in their half of the garden, and have lettuce and kale sprouts growing in containers. She said parents of John Muir students started pushing for a school garden about four years ago and have done most of the work to make it a success.

"A lot of grants come by my desk, but I thought this was one was really just made for us," said Tacconi.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.