School gardens, a second classroom where hands-on learning reigns supreme, are cropping up across the nation. Two cities – D.C. and Denver – are changing the way their gardens grow with innovative additions to their programming.
“What happens in D.C. is really exciting and, in a number of ways, different,” says DC Greens executive director Lauren Shweder Biel, whose organization connects local communities to healthy food. As part of that mission, DC Greens supports and sustains school gardens within DCPS. These gardens function as an outdoor classroom, offering unique learning opportunities that provide lessons in problem solving, teamwork, nutrition, agriculture, seasonality, and locality – and, best of all, they are places where kids can dig in the dirt, play with worms, and just be themselves.
“We have a supportive city council,” says Biel. The Healthy Schools Act, passed in 2010 and funded by a soda tax, created a grant-making process to support school gardens by providing $10,000 to $15,000 in grant money to schools looking to start or sustain a garden.
The grant not only allows schools to hire folks to care for the gardens, it insists on it – with up to 80 percent of funds allowed to go toward maintenance staffing. “It takes much more than putting in infrastructure,” says Biel. And that’s where DC Greens comes in.
The organization doesn’t plant gardens in schools. Rather, it provides resources and support to the teachers and staff who do. “We try to make sure everybody is resourced up,” Biel explains. DC Greens created a professional network of garden-based educators and hosts free workshops for teachers. Participating educators receive free seedlings and instructional materials for use in their classrooms.
There are roughly 200 charter and public schools in DCPS; 93, reports Biel, house school gardens. Gardens are built using a variety of funds – grants from the Healthy Schools Act are augmented with other small donations from, say, the Whole Kids Foundation, Home Depot, or extra PTA money…or a farmer’s market at the school. But we’ll get into that in a bit. First, we have to journey to Denver, where the whole thing got started…
A massive operation
In 2001, a small group of parents planted a few gardens in four public schools. But what started as a modest program designed to get kids outdoors and educate them on healthy eating has since morphed into a massive operation encompassing nearly 100 gardens at 26 middle and high schools and 72 elementary schools within the Denver Public Schools district.
“If there’s a cohort of teachers who want to get outside with students and do hands-on learning, a school garden offers that opportunity,” says Abbie Noriega, communications and development coordinator for Denver Urban Gardens (DUG).
The introduction of new school gardens has been funded entirely through grant and bond money, and, while DPS does not provide funding, the district’s Sustainability Office helps with grant writing, says Annie Chensoff, garden intern with DPS’s Sustainability Office. When it comes to maintaining a garden, local nonprofit organizations like DUG and Slow Foods Denver provide support.
“At first, misconceptions about what was allowable by the health department meant students couldn’t eat food they grew,” explains Andy Nowak of Slow Food International. In order to make garden food consumable, Slow Food Denver worked with Denver’s Department of Environmental Health to establish protocols that permit students to safely gather produce. Now in its fifth year of operation, this garden-to-cafeteria program lets students harvest their crop and sell it to the cafeteria at wholesale prices. Over seventeen schools participate in the program, and during the 2013-2014 school year, DPS served over 1,000 pounds of student-grown produce.
You’ll find robust school garden programs in many states, but D.C. and Denver are at the forefront when it comes to offering full-scale, student-run farmer’s markets.
Market participants open stands and sell their produce to parents and neighbors to help support the school garden and other programs. In other words, says DC Greens' Biel, "Move over, bake sale."
Depending on the market and the age of the students, a stand might be on school grounds, selling mostly to the school community--parents and staff. Markets staffed by middle- and high-school students, though, might be set up outside school borders where budding salespeople interact with a broader consumer base. “Older kids really have to engage their community in order to turn a profit since there aren’t set pick-up times at these schools,” explains Biel. The markets give students hands-on lessons in business, build communication skills and strengthen self-confidence. DC Greens is even working with asset management group Carlyle Group to build a mini-MBA curriculum for elementary students.
DC Greens developed the DCPS farmers market program after hearing a presentation from Slow Food Denver at a conference last year.
“It is exciting because it serves so many purposes at once: raising money for the school garden program, providing hands-on math and marketing skills, teaching students about seasonality and agriculture,” Biel says. What’s more, she says, youth farmer’s markets transform schools into a food access points by offering healthy food to communities.
“Most of our school-based community gardens are located in food insecure neighborhoods,” Noriega, in Denver, says. “Our markets provide access to good, fresh food.” In D.C., every market is outfitted with a SNAP terminal for accepting food stamps.
Even in affluent areas, though, residents have been excited to purchase their produce from school gardens. “This can be a great fundraising tool for schools,” says Noriega. Biel tells of one D.C. school, Janney Elementary in Tenleytown, that keeps four chickens and sells a few eggs each week. “Those eggs almost become auction items, where people--" mostly excited parents--"started paying $5 per egg,” she says.
Farmer’s market profits help pay for the school gardens. DCPS launched its pilot farmer’s market season last fall, and each of the six participating schools turned a profit that was immediately reinvested, says Biel. A spring program kicked off in May with ten schools participating, from Georgetown to Trinidad.
In Denver, youth farmer’s markets are growing fast. During the 2012-2013 school year the program produced 141 markets in 32 schools and grossed nearly $9,000, not bad for gardens that are typically just a few raised beds. In fact, the markets have proven so popular that some have to supplement their inventory with produce grown outside the school. "We can't grow everything," Nowak says. "So we buy bigger crops from local farmers at wholesale prices." In D.C., too, student-grown produce is augmented with fresh fare bought wholesale.
“It’s an exciting time to be doing this work,” says Biel, crediting Michelle Obama for putting the issue of healthy eating in schools at the forefront of the nation’s conscious. “I think we are only scratching the surface with how big this can get.”