by Eileen Weber
Edible school gardens are growing at a rapid pace. Increasingly, school districts are making the gardens part of their curriculum. The Edible School Gardens Workshop at the Unitarian Church in Westport, sponsored in part by the Westport Green Village Initiative in partnership with Amy Kalafa, founder of Two Angry Moms, featured an expert panel of school garden organizers. With a room filled almost to capacity this morning, parents, farmers, gardeners, and school officials alike listened intently about how to start one in their own school system.
Dorothy Mullen, founder of the Riverside Elementary School gardens in Princeton, NJ, discussed how she got the project underway in her district. Only a few weeks post-9/11 in November 2001, she wanted to make a change in the school lunch system by introducing fresh food.
She noted how nutrition positively or negatively affects the body. “The brain is the most sensitive organ to poor nutrition,” she said. At the very least, kids can have a loss in concentration that prevents learning. “When the brain is out fuel,” she said, “we can’t learn correctly.”
Mullen, who is also an addiction counselor, said she started small by taking kids on a walking tour to her backyard garden. Then, the concept grew. She wanted to take it to the school. This was one way to instill the benefits of nutrition. She pointed out that, with a garden, there is a teaching opportunity for other subjects: science, math, food and nutrition, and art. From an environmental perspective, conservation in composting and water usage is a valuable lesson as well.
Mullen continued by outlining the best ways to set up a school garden. She said that it is imperative to get the support you need, especially from the school’s principal. More than just the kids and parents, the teachers have to be on board, too. If your school’s teachers see it as just one more thing they have to do rather than a valuable tool, the learning experience will be thwarted.
“The more the kids are involved,” said Mullen, “the more likely they are to eat healthy.” She cited the statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. One out of every three children is expected to have Type II Diabetes by age 30. One out of every six will be diagnosed with some impairment that inhibits their learning. Nutrition plays a major role in those statistics.
With Mullen’s spunk and determination, every school in her district now has an organic garden as part of the curriculum.
Annelise McCay, founder of the organic garden at Roger Sherman Elementary School in Fairfield, was also a panelist. She mirrored Mullen’s statements by saying how important it is to have something like this as a part of a child’s education.
She lamented that kids today don’t have the same experience with gardening that used to be available in this area. “I grew up in Westport,” she said. “In the 70s, there were farms within walking distance from my home. I’ve watched them slowly disappear.”
Another panelist, Jane Slupecki, founder of the Connecticut State Farm-to-School Program, said of community supported agriculture, “I’d like to see more open spaces devoted to CSAs.” The program, in which districts across the state participate, supports local farms by using their fresh produce in the school cafeterias.
Much like Annelise McCay, Kate Branch of Bedford Hills Elementary School in Westchester, felt the importance of bringing a garden to her school system. She said, at first, one can feel a little alone trying to get the school system on board with the garden project. But in the end, it’s all worth it.
“We really wanted to focus on how children are eating,” she said. “It’s critical for the kids to see the connection between growing and eating food.”
Bringing organically grown food to the schools is not a new concept. Many of the panelists cited the influence of California’s Alice Waters, owner of the renowned restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley and responsible, among other things, for the Slow Food movement in her school district.
In 1994, Waters started the “Edible Schoolyard” at the Martin Luther King Middle School. In an unused school parking lot with nothing more than 100 pounds of compost and a little gumption, Waters started what she considered the outdoor equivalent of an indoor classroom.
She was quoted in the Berkeley Daily Planet that the intention of the project was to engage the children in eating what they grew. With any luck, this would reverse their evil “Devil Dog” ways and combat the juvenile obesity epidemic in this country.
In an August 14, 1996 article in The New York Times, Waters said, “When I saw the Martin Luther King School with the graffiti on the windows and the burned-out lawn, I thought it was abandoned. The cafeteria had been abandoned for 15 years.”
Waters continued by saying, “Most of the kids didn't eat breakfast or lunch. What I envisioned was a place where the kids could serve each other the lunch they'd grow.''
With Waters, the mother of the American Food Revolution, as inspiration, these panelists want people to know the benefits of undertaking such a project. But they agreed it needs support—and a budget.
But what is often seen as a budgetary “extra” can become a source of income. Panelists noted that many groups had success with fundraisers for the gardens. Adding to that any donations received for start-up supplies, the garden pays for itself in no time.
The concept of an edible organic school garden is clearly taking hold. What started as a grassroots movement has had a domino effect across the country. It’s a fever and, fortunately for our children, it’s contagious.
Photo courtesy of The Edible School Gardens Workshop.