Students in the Solar Club at East Elementary School don’t mind getting their hands dirty, because the reward is sweet.

The fourth- and fifth-grade students use their solar oven to create foods using organic produce they planted and tended to in the school’s garden. They’ve made brownies and croissants so far using recipes they’ve found online. Their adviser, Meridith Meerman, allows the students to decide on what they plant and cook.

The purpose of the group was to teach students about growing foods without pesticides, and eating in a way that doesn’t have a harmful impact on the environment.

“I’ve taught them how to do things that are not chemical-based,” said Meerman, who recently was honored for her support of Green Living, Green Planet’s Eat4Life Program at a Charlotte County Commission meeting. Encouraging her students to cultivate the school’s garden exemplified her support of their initiative.

The students use earthworms and ladybugs to keep pests away instead of pesticides. They had a retention pond near the garden, where they released minnows to take care of the mosquitoes.

The students created their solar cooker using mostly recycled materials: a mailbox, insulation from a HelloFresh box, reflective Duct tape and mirrors.

“It took two tries to make,” said fourth-grader Mia Johanson. “We put too much insulation and it wouldn’t shut at first,” she said. In addition to Mia, the club has four other members: fourth-graders Kayleigh Kaczenski and Alexis Mulinix, and fifth-graders Savannah Sloan and Jade Richards.

The girls often meet before school to decide what to cook, and to set up their solar cooker outside. They will often check on their garden and cookers while they’re outside during recess. The club officially meets every Wednesday, with Meerman’s guidance.

“If you’re in a storm, and don’t have any power, you can cook your food,” said fourth-grader Kayleigh Kaczenski.

Currently in their garden, they have broccoli, lettuce, bell peppers, rosemary, basil, and mint. Most recently, they added a lemon tree, strawberries, and cauliflower into the mix.

“Solar cooking is a lot of trial and error. A cloudy day is very different than a sunny day,” said Meerman. “One of the hardest things that the kids learn is: They build something, learn something, create awesome-looking recipes, and none of it works, and they have to go back to the drawing board.”

Though it’s not possible to burn while solar cooking, it is possible to overcook what you’re making. Meerman said there is about a 30-minute window, to where the product would become hard and overcooked.

The club recently purchased a pig to use for meat, which they are considering using for a breakfast dish in their first competition, which takes place in April in Brandon.

As the club is in its third year, word is starting to spread to other students about how much fun and success students in the club have. At recess, students eye the produce that’s almost ripe.

Students must be in fourth or fifth grade to apply. However, Meerman can only accept, at most, eight students, because that’s all competition will allow — two teams of four.

She won’t accept more than eight, because she can’t imagine having to pick who gets to compete and who doesn’t.

“In all actuality, they all need to go to competition and get the experience,” she said.

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