Taking It Outside: Schools Grow Future Foodies and Gardeners
It's just after 3pm on an early June Friday, and the elementary school courtyard is filling up with energetic kids of varying ages. At the far end of a raised garden bed, pea vines twine up the salvaged box spring that serves as a trellis. In its shadow, a blond girl twirls on one foot in the gravel. Two boys kick a bottle cap between them; other children flip the pages of their new yearbooks.
Irvington Community Elementary School (ICES) is one week away from summer break, and the students are buzzing with springfevered anticipation. But when Jennifer Smith, the eastside charter school's health teacher, calls the school year's last meeting of the garden club to order, everyone quiets down.
"Raise your hand if you want to be in the garden club next year," she says.
Nearly every hand shoots up.
It's a welcome sight, given the number of youth who have never experienced the flavor burst of a homegrown tomato. The closest many children come is the ketchup on a French fry.
In fact, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful's Ginny Roberts, who works with many schools to develop garden programs, conducted an informal survey of several Indianapolis Public School middle school classes. Only five children out of some 600 had picked a ripe tomato off the vine. "I was just shocked," she says.
Rita Franco, a mother of four who has been heavily involved with the ICES garden club, says she knows firsthand how easy it is to fall into the fast-food trap, given the harried pace of life. That's why she's so passionate about the club. All four of her children take part, and she loves giving them the chance to experience what she calls "slower-paced food."
"My vision is to teach the kids where their food comes from," she says, adding that all kids need to know the true-blue flavors of food cultivated in their own backyard or schoolyard.
NURTURING THE SEEDS
As the club members get ready to get to work, Smith tells them they can stop by anytime during the summer with their parents and pull a weed or give the plants a drink. With ICES doors opening for the new school year in late July, summer break is short. Smith is counting on this type of ad hoc involvement to keep the garden flourishing until the club resumes with the school year. The built-in reward is the harvest: "If there's a red tomato, you can pick it and eat it, OK?"
Then the group gets their marching orders for the next half hour: The fifth graders, top of the totem pole here, will bring wheelbarrow-loads of bricks – eventually to border new beds – from the far side of the school lot. The first and second graders will tend to the seedlings along the back of the building. Hand tools emerge from backpacks as the kids scatter to their posts. Some attack weeds with gusto, whacking the dirt with garden forks to dislodge young thistles from the soil. The girl on hose duty, predictably, gets soaked. The fifth graders trundle into view, too many hands steering the tilting, overloaded wheelbarrow.
It might look like organized chaos, but it's part of a movement being expressed at schools citywide, and across the nation.
From the private Orchard School, where students engage with nature while applying math, art and writing skills, to the Indiana School for the Blind, where a horticulture program opens a window to the world of plants, to Woodbrook Elementary in Carmel, where fifth graders experience history by planting a Colonial vegetable plot, countless schools are bringing their students into the garden.
Here they have the chance to see a seed turn into food, with far-reaching impact. At ICES, some of the seedlings begun in late winter were given to participants to plant at home, and many parents report that the children are deeply invested in those backyard gardens. A first grader's father told Smith that his son persuaded the family to try gardening. The tomatoes and marigolds are clearly the little boy's jurisdiction.
"He goes out there all the time and plays in his garden," Smith says.
While the current club membership stands at 32, dozens more want to join. Smith and Franco's dream is to be able to include everyone who wants to take part – and to create sister gardens at ICES' companion schools at the junior high and high school level, so the seeds planted in the lives of these youngsters can continue to be nurtured after they leave.
Their eventual wish is to grow enough produce to feed the students, though so far the yield has been limited to nosh-sized, parceled out among club members on the spot. If they do progress to cafeteria-scale yields, health department regulations might pose an obstacle. Franco says another possibility is to sell the produce at farmers' markets and use the income to improve school lunches, where whole foods are scarce.
The club joins forces with the school's wellness group during the winter to focus on nutritional education. And throughout the growing season there's great potential for garden-based science and math lessons.
RAISING FOOD ADVOCATES
If club members need a model for what's possible, they need only look up the road. At the Project School, a K–8 charter school located northeast of downtown, an urban "edible schoolyard" offers a leafy oasis and training ground. Bordering the playground are 15 raised beds, a three stage composting bin, cold frames to extend the garden season, a garden shed and an outdoor classroom. Grants from several sources, coupled with partnerships with allies like Butler University's Center for Urban Ecology and People for Urban Progress, have allowed the school's agricultural focus to grow exponentially over the past three years.
Tarrey Banks, school leader and fourth grade math teacher, says the school – situated on a reclaimed brownfield – has ambitious plans for more. The coming year should see the development of a half-acre farm in the neglected space behind the school.
In the meantime, the school lunch contract with Aramark has incorporated more fresh produce each year. "Every summer we meet with them and push the envelope a little more. They've been very good to work with," says Banks. The next step, he says, is to incorporate the school-grown produce into the meal plan, perhaps supplementing with food from a local farm.
About 75% of Project School enrollees are at or below the poverty level. The entire student body has interaction with the school garden as an introduction to sustainable food systems.
The students undertake "project-, problem-, place-based learning." In practice, this means seeking out an issue that's rooted in the community and designing a project to address it.
This approach that has led the second and third graders to organize a community workshop on – what else? – how to build a raised garden bed. Using funds raised by selling Bloomington-based Nature's Crossroads seeds, the students made some 30 3x6-foot raised beds and delivered them to area residents. Filling them with soil was the final step, but the students' involvement doesn't stop there. The project continues as they track the new gardens, preparing a "capacity map" of the area's food production.
Even the more typical class lessons incorporate the edible schoolyard where possible. For example, Banks' fourth grade math class designed the new half-acre planting space, using reclaimed shipping containers as building material for an indoor/outdoor shelter and raised beds. Applying what they learned about surface area, volume and angles, they worked with scale models of the shipping containers, with a goal of zero waste.
Older students are looking at the big picture, reading Michael Pollan's seminal book The Omnivore's Dilemma and watching Food, Inc.
Big City Farms owner Matthew Jose, who has consulted with the Project School and hosted field trips, expects this kind of immersion to have a big payoff. "Even if [the students] don't garden in 20 years, their baseline of ecological awareness has been increased. . . They have some sense of what a healthy environment looks like, and what a healthy city looks like. That knowledge will inform them in later pursuits whether they garden or not."
And the students get it. Banks tells the story of a 14-year-old boy whose response to Food, Inc. was an aghast "You have got to be kidding me."
"A lot of people think [teens] are just about playing Xbox, but to see a kid have a visceral reaction to being duped like that. . . and that leads to action. It's an inroad to 'Now you get why we are teaching you to grow food.'" Banks hopes his charges will leave the school as informed consumers and potential local food advocates.
Over at ICES, the impact is already being felt. Franco says her youngsters have gotten in the habit of asking where the food on their plate comes from. "We talk about that all the time now."
Parent Alicia Añino, whose kindergartener Liani is a garden club member, notices her daughter's sense of ownership in the family garden, especially for plants started in garden club. "She's more apt to eat it if it's from an edible plant she brought home." Recently, Liani enthusiastically downed a whole-grain pasta dish featuring greens from the garden.
On this late spring day, as the meeting wraps up, club members list what they've most enjoyed about gardening. Freckle-faced Eli says his favorite part is digging. Erin favors "putting mulch down," while Kylie prefers "having fun with the water hose." Emily says she's looking forward to picking and eating tomatoes.
Before the group disperses, Smith plucks arugula leaves and mustard greens from the raised bed for an impromptu sampling. All line up for a taste, which prompts a few shudders, a few bemused shrugs, and comments like "It's so spicy!" and "It's actually good!" But perhaps the kids' very willingness to take a nibble speaks loudest of all.
How You Can Help
School gardens offer many opportunities for community members to make a difference. Here's how:
• Check out Global Peace Initiatives (globalpeaceinitiatives.net), an Indy-based nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers to create "Peace Gardens," many of which are located on school grounds. GPI founder Linda Proffitt notes that helping to plant or maintain a garden can be a rich learning experience. "Getting down and dirty – that's how you learn."
• Find out if your neighborhood school has a garden program that could benefit from your time. At Irvington Community Elementary School, for example, garden club leader Jennifer Smith is seeking experienced gardeners to help teach the students and staff about all aspects of growing food.
• Many school gardens are in need of basic supplies and support. If you have seeds, gloves, tools, organic matter or building materials on hand, consider passing them on to a school that could use them.
• Help a school find and apply for grants. (Grants from the Department of Education and State Farm, among others, funded the Project School's edible schoolyard.)
• Organize or participate in a fundraiser to benefit your community's school garden program, or give a monetary donation. (ICES has a community rain barrel workshop set for this fall that will raise much-needed funds. See ics-charter.org/elementary for details.)