Making a Career in School Gardens

When I was in undergrad in the Northeast, around 15 years ago, a degree in “Food Studies” was unheard of.  A campus farm or edible garden was something reserved for agriculture schools or off-campus hippie/granola enclaves. However, the past 5  years have shown a proliferation of opportunities to get trained as farmers, gardeners, food policy makers, and food law practitioners.

On a recent site visit to Portland, Oregon, I met with FoodCorps service site supervisor Caitlin Blethen and her service member Jessica Polledri. Caitlin told me about her local program that trains school garden coordinators. This signaled to me a similar kind of sea change. It indicated that there is a desire out there to be trained in this work, and that there is a (slowly) growing market of jobs being created to do this work. I’ll let Jessica—a graduate of the program– take it from here:

Sometimes, pieces just fall into place. Soon after I moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, I heard about something called the School Garden Coordinator Certificate Training course (SGCCT), a 35-hour course offered by Growing Gardens, a local nonprofit.

I didn’t know something like this existed, and I applied for the course in the hopes that I could climb out of an illustrious past in retail work and unpaid internships. I crossed my fingers, was accepted, and propelled myself into the career track that I didn’t even realize was a career track.

That’s because it’s relatively new: school gardens date back to World War I–when the national school garden program was called, aptly I think, the United States School Garden Army–but have only recently enjoyed a resurgence. Gardens are growing in schoolyards all over the country, a trend that is highlighted by the recent inception of FoodCorps, a national organization dedicated to building and tending school gardens, providing hands-on nutrition education, and bringing high-quality local food into school cafeterias (full disclosure: I am a FoodCorps service member currently serving with Growing Gardens).

For over a decade, Growing Gardens has been steadily building its youth programming but recognized that the need for school gardens was outweighing the organization’s capacity. In an effort to keep the school garden movement blossoming in Portland, they decided to develop and offer the training. Nationwide, there are precious few school garden coordinator training programs: it is possible that Growing Gardens’ SGCCT was, in 2009, the very first.

Growing Gardens’ Youth Grow Manager, Caitlin Blethen, put the course together using her experience working in the field as a garden educator. Over the course’s 35 learning hours, Blethen and a host of guest speakers cover developing a master plan, community organizing, teaching students in a school garden setting, how to connect school garden activities and lessons to the curriculum, and planning a planting calendar, among other topics. To sweeten the deal even more, SGCCT students can opt to receive continuing education credits from Portland State University, an incentive for current teachers and graduate-degree seekers alike.

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Though locally directed–speakers include Michelle Markesteyn Ratcliffe, the Oregon Farm to School Program Manager; and there is a special evening class dedicated to understanding the procedures that surround using garden produce in Portland Public Schools cafeterias–the skills taught are universal.

Graduates of the program have gone on to great things: There has been a steady stream of graduates stopping by the Growing Gardens office to peruse our seed library for flowers and vegetables for their new–and thriving–school gardens. Two graduates applied for and received a lucrative grant to get their garden project off the ground. We get constant feedback on how integral certain topics (creating a garden committee, working with school custodial staff, writing mission and vision statements) really were to the graduates’ success. And this particular graduate can ensure you that the course got her exactly where she had hoped to be.

Jessica Polledri is a FoodCorps service member in Portland Oregon, serving under the Oregon Department of Agriculture, with Growing Gardens.

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Jerusha Klemperer lives in New York City where she is a co-founder and the communications director at FoodCorps. She blogs for Huffington Post, WellandGoodNYC and her personal blog Eat Here 2. She also cooks up food and fun with Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant. Read more >

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  1. Bill Jensen

    sounds like a great program. Is this course offered online? Live in Northern California.
    No Food Corps program yet in CA.

    I am in the process of developing a school garden.
    I would be interested in any links to: using school garden produce in the school lunch program.

    Thank you

    Bill Jensen
  2. Hi Bill, I recommend checking out the National Farm to School Network's California page on their web site:

    And, of course, FoodCorps hopes to be in more states soon!

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