School gardens are an excellent way for children to get to know fresh fruits and vegetables, supplement classroom instruction, and just plain spend more time outdoors. Alice Waters created the model for the Edible Schoolyard over a decade ago and dozens of school gardens have followed suit. With a recent critical article in The Atlantic getting people talking about the value of school gardens again, it seemed an opportune time to take a peek into eight programs that are teaching kids a love of gardening and cooking and then share some resources for starting program to your own school.
Dillard Academy — Goldsboro, North Carolina
When Cheryl Alston was tasked with helping underperforming students raise their test scores at Dillard Academy‘s Center for Academic, Social, Technology, Literacy, and Economic Solutions (CASTLES) she didn’t start with worksheets and drills. She got her students outside, gardening. “I had to find a hook, something not traditional, different, exciting.” CASTLES is an after-school and summer school program created to help struggling K-6 students in this socioeconomically-challenged area in rural North Carolina.
Thanks to CASTLES’ 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, a partnership with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), and a local church with available land, and a growing number of other partnerships, the students at CASTLES work some 3 1/2 acres of peas, tomatoes, eggplant, greens, strawberries, cabbage, cucumbers and herbs. They sell some of the produce at a community mini-market and cook some of it for themselves using recipes gleaned from grandparents. They even write and perform songs about their garden, which they recently performed at a W. K. Kellogg Foundation conference in San Jose, California.
Alston, who previously taught high school chemistry partly through a small classroom garden, adapted curriculum for the garden. She knew she had something when children enrolled in the summer gardening program tested out of CASTLES in subsequent years. “This is it!,” she said to herself, “This is what we’ve got to do!” But as children bring home the lessons about cooking and gardening to their parents Alston is hoping the program does more than raise test scores. She’s hoping that students will teach their parents and then the community to eat healthier. “I’m waiting to hear about fewer cases of diabetes!” she laughs.
Cooking With Kids — Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe, New Mexico is known for its rich culinary tradition, but beyond from the hotels, art galleries, and restaurants there are communities struggling to find fresh produce and a healthy way of eating. Cookbook author and restauranteur Lynn Walters founded the non-profit Cooking With Kids: Hands-On Food and Nutrition Education in partnership with the Santa Fe Public Schools in 1995. What started as a small pilot program now serves over 4,450 Pre-K through 6th grade kids at 12 low-income schools.
Through the program, which takes place within the usual school day, students learn how different fruits and vegetables are grown. Local chef volunteers (like Rocky Durham, Fernando Olea, Martin Rios, and Johnny Vollertson) teach the students how to cook using fresh, affordable foods and recipes from a wide range of cultures. Students not only learn about nutrition and cooking, but also supplement their instruction in math, social studies, and science; the curriculum is tied to New Mexico’s state standards.
Walters was originally brought into the schools to improve their lunch program. She started holding brainstorming sessions and brought in chefs, thinking, “If the food is beter they’ll eat it.” Walters quickly learned this was not so simple and that she had to build acceptance of new foods by having the students participate in the preparation of the food as well. Now Cooking With Kids meals are served in the lunchroom twice a month. The program draws some 1200 parent volunteers, so the lessons are finding their way home. And CWK is preparing community events to take part in Santa Fe’s 400th celebration in 2010.
CitySprouts — Cambridge, Massachusetts
Since 2000 CitySprouts has been working with the Cambridge, Massachusetts public schools to develop and implement school garden programs. The program administrators have done an impressive job of building the institutional infrastructure to keep CitySprouts thriving, and this makes a significant difference. The garden programs are integrated into the school core curriculum and teachers are provided with at least three hours of training in the gardens. CitySprouts even offers an environmental stewardship and community leadership internship program for middle school through college students.
Currently there is a CitySprouts program in 10 out of the 12 K-8 schools, with plans to cover all schools this fall. And the garden curriculum goes beyond science; lessons extend into math, literacy, social studies and art, plus hands-on instruction on sustainable agriculture, the food cycle, and the natural environment.
As a community-minded program, CitySprouts offers after school and summer “Drop-Ins,” workshops open to the community on soil testing and garden cooking. In 2008 these workshops attracted more than 2,900 visits. As part of the program, the schools host farmer visits and cafeteria tastings of food grown in the garden–and speaking of the cafeteria, CitySprouts is working with Food Services to bring healthier, more local food into school lunches. It’s an ambitious, far-reaching program, but thoughtfully designed to provide plenty of support, buy-in, and benefits for the entire community.
Watch the kids at CitySprouts talk about their experiences:
Thurgood Marshall Academy — Southeast Washington, DC
A large, well-integrated program is wonderful, but a program can start with the inspiration of just one or two people. High school biology teacher Sarah Johnson started an organic garden two years ago at Thurgood Marshall Academy with two other teachers. It actually started as an outgrowth of the student green club she advised. Realizing that finding and eating nutritious food was a challenge for the students, Johnson applied for an Earth Day grant and a Washington Parks and People grant to build the first raised garden beds. Over the summer she taught a summer school class on “where our food comes from” and in the afternoon green club members met every single day to garden, harvest, and cook.
To enable multi-disciplinary lessons in the garden the students have planted tobacco and cotton for the history teachers, for example, as well as other plants mentioned in classic literature. In the garden cooking classes (using equipment from the lab) Johnson has found that “you’ll really inspire a desire in students to continue cooking if you don’t keep bound to a recipe.” She give her students an idea, like stir fry, and then lets them decide how to do it. Beyond the classroom she and her colleagues are working with DC Hunger Solution to get fresh food (including the garden’s produce) sold in the corner store across from school. Meanwhile, the gardeners sell some of their produce and some composting worm casings at farmers’ markets around the city.
Johnson says the school administrators took some convincing. Limited space was an issue, “but essentially we were just tenacious in getting it done, and now the administration is very excited about what we’re doing.” A common concern for school administrators is continuity–who will keep the garden going from year to year as staff and students change? TMA’s garden program is young, but so far the excitement and commitment of the students, who come in early and stay late daily, has impressed everyone. Johnson adds, “if there’s not student and teacher buy-in, then the administration will not be supportive. The garden will need this support and enthusiasm to survive; Johnson has just moved this summer to teach in Oakland, California. She has full confidence that the garden will continue in her absence.
Woodland Elementary West — Gages Lake, Illinois
Every spring at Woodland Elementary West, some 400 second-grade students plant vegetable seedlings in their classrooms. Over the months they will tend these seedlings, transplant them outdoors in the school garden, continue weeding and watering, and eventually harvest enough produce for class samples and a donation to the town food pantry.
Woodland’s program was initiated by the principal (now retired) and has been maintained by parents, administrators, and teachers. The school is fortunate to have a very large, campus-style school with ample space for gardening. Through the summer day-campers and parents tend the garden so that when 2nd graders return as 3rd graders in the fall they can harvest their produce. The school uses sustainable practices, like fish emulsion fertilizer and dish soap to repel aphids. The absence of chemicals means kids can touch the plants during tours and spend class time and recess in the garden.
In the last two years the school has donated 1,500 pounds of vegetables to the food pantry. “Pantries always have a need for ‘fresh’ food because it’s healthier than the usual canned staples,” says parent volunteer and gardening author Ann Nagro. “These students are not only learning sustainable agriculture and healthy eating habits, they are also learning that they can change their community.”
24th Street Schoolyard Garden — Los Angeles, California
24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, used to have a one-acre blacktop parking lot. The surrounding neighborhood of West Adam is a food desert, meaning groceries with fresh produce are scarce. Now that lot is a thriving garden with an outdoor kitchen featuring a pitfire pizza oven. Thanks to the support of teachers, administrators, parents, and some key community members like restauranteur Nancy Silverton, the 24th Street Schoolyard Garden is a source of fresh produce for the student and, increasingly, the community.
Through a variety of classes children in all grades spend some time in the garden each week, whether they are gardening or having a science lesson. Package designer Laurie Dill teaches 5th graders herb identification and even shows the kids how to package the herbs to sell to local chefs, who then come in to do cooking demonstrations. She notes that while most children in the class start out knowing next to nothing about where their food comes from, “once you get them talking about it and cooking they start making connections with what their families make. Kids are eating and tasting vegetables all the time in the garden. They take it home, often literally.”
24th Street is the prototype school for the Garden School Foundation, which works in partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District to bring gardens and kitchens to schools (among other goals). The foundation does fundraisers like an Eat the Magazine dinner organized by Edible Los Angeles at Grace and supporting businesses and organizations make both financial, labor, and in-kind donations. But the garden’s success began with the dedication of a small group of people. “If you can get the one receptive teacher the others will follow,” Dill says. “It all depends on principals and teachers who see the benefits.”
Watch this video to see the program in action.
CookShop Classroom — New York, NY
On a warm May day two kindergarten classrooms at Brooklyn’s Teunis E. Bergen School (PS 9) were infused with the grassy scent of fresh-cut vegetables and fruit. Students in one room were carefully slicing apples, green beans, cucumbers, carrots, green onions, and red bell peppers with plastic knives while students in the classroom next door practiced their writing and reading skills as they discussed a recipe for lettuce wraps. Moments later they would all be enthusiastically cramming the vegetable-filled lettuce wraps into their mouths, a spectacle rarely seen among any children.
These are the fruits of a program called CookShop Classroom, created by FoodChange (now part of FoodBank New York) in partnership with New York City’s Department of School Food and Columbia Teacher’s College. CookShop Classroom is a series of lessons centering around 10 different fruits and vegetables. One week the class learns about a particular food: where and how it’s grown, the different parts of the plant, how it gets to the city, what it looks and smells like and how it is typically prepared.
In these hands-on lessons students touch and sample the produce. The following week students prepare a dish using the fruit or vegetable they learned about the previous week. This experience is exactly what researchers say induces children to eat their vegetables: repeated exposure breeds familiarity, which leads to acceptance. Even better, as children learn to accept the CookShop vegetables they also learn to be more adventurous with other foods.
Learning to be adventurous is fun, as the kids themselves will tell you. “My favorite part was when we dipped the apples [into a savory sauce the students made]. They looked yummy and I ate them like a bunny rabbit!” a PS 9 kindergardener Bethlehem enthuses. “I like it best when we were learning how to cook. I liked learning about the ingredients.”
Mullberry Junction Community Garden — Minneapolis, Minnesota
If a school garden is not a possibility for you, a community garden might accommodate a children’s program. Joyce Perew was jogging past a community garden one morning when she noticed how dilapidated it looked. Between jobs at the time, she decided to investigate and suddenly found herself working with a teacher and a master gardener to rehabilitate the garden for an after-school and summer-school program. Perew and her collaborators found and created lesson plans around the garden, teaching students not only how to grow and cook fresh foods but also the kind of wacky lessons that really reach students, like how to make a battery out of a carrot.
Perew’s cooking lessons usually focused on one vegetable or fruit grown in the garden. She would teach a small group a recipe and provide puzzles, experiments, nutritional information, related literature, and crafts. In a group setting peer pressure actually worked in favor of the vegetables; if a few kids liked a dish, others would give it a chance. Perew also gave the kids lessons in ingredients label reading, teaching them where additives like MSG and malodextrine come from. They conducted taste tests, comparing highly-processed boxed foods with their home-made equivalents.
The garden classes had a surprising benefit. For each taste test the students were required to explain why they liked or disliked a food. “A lot of these kids have behavioral problems,” Perew explains, so asking kids to describe their experiences with the foods more specifically “helped kids learn to express themselves more articulately and appropriately.” The gardening and cooking program actually had a civilizing effect on the kids!
School Garden and Cooking Class Resources
- School Garden Wizard is a toolbox for starting and maintaining a school garden created through a partnership between the United States Botanic Garden and Chicago Botanic Garden.
- Register your school with KidsGardening.org and find articles and other resources to help with your school garden.
- The California Department of Education, in collaboration with the Center for Ecoliteracy, has distributed more than 25,000 print copies of Getting Started: A Guide for Creating School Gardens as Outdoor Classrooms. Download it here.
- Texas A&M Department of Horticulture’s has a school gardening website.
- Download Farm Aid’s Farm to School 101 Toolkit here.
- Sustainable Table’s guide to school garden and food projects.
- Gardening ABCs is a website dedicated to school gardens created by Anne Nagro, a parent volunteer with Woodland Elementary West in Illinois. She has also written a book on her school’s project, Our Generous Garden, available in a dual language (Spanish-English) edition by Dancing Rhinoceros Press.
- Joyce Perew, who taught at the Mulberry Junction community garden in Minneapolis, has lessons available for sale. Contact her at email@example.com.
Organizations that provide and/or support school garden and cooking programs:
- Slow Food in Schools works with local Slow Food chapters to create Garden to Table projects in K-12 schools.
- Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Foundation leads an Edible Schoolyard Academy for educators. In the future the organization will be forming affiliate model programs and will develop a suite of tools to help districts across the country change their school meal programs.
- RecipeForSuccess is a non-profit charity dedicated to combating childhood obesity by changing the way children understand, appreciate and eat their food.
- The Life Lab Science Program (by the University of California, Santa Cruz) is a nonprofit organization and has been working in the field of science and environmental education since 1979. With their award winning curricula and programs, the organization helps schools develop gardens where children can create “living laboratories” for the study of the natural world.
- The National Farm to School Network is a collaborative project of the Center for Food & Justice (CFJ), a division of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College and the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC). Farm to School brings healthy food from local farms to school children nationwide. The program teaches students about the path from farm to fork, and instills healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime. At the same time, use of local produce in school meals and educational activities provides a new direct market for farmers in the area and mitigates environmental impacts of transporting food long distances.
- Seeds of Solidarity is a nonprofit organization that provides people of all ages with the inspiration and practical tools to use renewable energy and grow food in their communities, Seeds of Solidarity has a number of school based garden partnerships, afterschool programs, and a teen program that teach young people to grow and cook fresh food.
- 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant supports the creation of community learning centers that provide academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools.
- The W. K. Kellogg Foundation provides grants for projects focusing on education and learning, food, health and well-being.
- The Earth Day Network provides grants for classroom civic and environmental education with hands-on learning experiences that provide an opportunity for students to remedy local environmental concerns.
- Your school can raise up to $5000 for your school garden through Lowe’s Toolbox for Education.
- The National Gardening Association and The Home Depot offers a Youth Garden Grants program.
- Chlorox Green Works offers a Green Heroes grant program.
- Real School Gardens is a grassroots gardening program that helps children by supporting elementary school communities as they design, install and sustain outdoor classrooms (gardens).
- The Sylvia Center offers garden-to-table nutrition education year-round in classrooms all over New York City. From May through October, they host school and camp groups at Katchkie Farm, in Kinderhook, NY.
- City Blossoms is a Maryland-based organization that uses gardening to create environmental, nutritional, and cultural connections for children and youth.
- Growing Chefs offers educational programming in farming, gardening, and cooking with simple recipes using seasonal ingredients in the New York City metro area.
- Mud Baron helps schools in the Los Angeles area start and maintain gardens.
Read more about school garden projects around the country:
Prepare yourself for some challenges:
- What’s on Your Plate? is a documentary produced and directed by award-winning Catherine Gund about kids and food politics, narrated by two eleven-year-old New York City public school students.
- Look out for the forthcoming documentary A Community of Gardeners, which includes the Washington Youth Garden and the C. Melvin Sharpe Health School Garden.
- School Lunch Talk is a blog about public school food.
- Chef Ann Cooper, who revolutionized the Berkeley school system’s cafeterias, keeps a website and blog.
Photo credit: CookShop photo by Michael Harlan Turkell