Magazine article District Administration

Fresh Lessons Sprout at City Schools: Urban Districts Grow Gardens to Teach Nutrition, Science, and Even Story Telling

Magazine article District Administration

Fresh Lessons Sprout at City Schools: Urban Districts Grow Gardens to Teach Nutrition, Science, and Even Story Telling

Article excerpt

Nestled between high-rise buildings in New York City, a lush, green garden full of colorful fruits and vegetables grows on the rooftop of the Harlem Children's Zone and Promise Academy Charter School. What was just a few small boxes of dirt five years ago has grown into a 1,000-square-foot garden with 30 types of plants, including tomatoes, squash, eggplant, peppers, and berries. "It's quite amazing when you're out there and see all this growing on top of a building in Harlem," says Harlem Children's Zone executive chef Andrew Benson, who uses the produce in after-school cooking classes.

School gardens are on the rise in urban areas as educators see the academic benefits of adding hands-on learning to traditional curriculum. Teachers can get creative with lessons that integrate the Common Core standards coming to classrooms nationwide. First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign also has inspired schools to build gardens to teach students to eat healthily and be more physically active.

There are no statistics on the number of school gardens nationwide, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking a survey this year. But they appear to be increasing. In the District of Columbia, for example, 90 of the 200 public schools have gardens, compared to about 15 that had them just 10 years ago.

At the Promise Academy, students harvest the garden greens and use them in after-school cooking classes. The garden also is a laboratory for science and math classes, allowing students to test PH levels and measure how plants grow in different types of soil. This past spring, fifth grade math students used vegetables from the garden to study fractions. "The goal is to have the kids understand that fruits and vegetables don't grow on a supermarket shelf we want kids to understand everything from seed to table," says Benson. "But the overall thing for us is the beauty of being out there. It's a place for kids to escape."

Supplementing nutrition

At Edwins Elementary School in the Okaloosa County (Fla.) School District, over 70 percent of the 450 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. There are students who are homeless and live out of hotel rooms and cars, says Sherri Harkins, a fifth grade science teacher in the district. Considering this and the increasing cost of food, Harkins decided to start a garden. "I felt the need for our student population to literally supplement their dinner table--to plant something and produce the food source," Harkins says.

The school won a Lowe's Toolbox for Education grant of $5,145 last year, and with the help of volunteers, built six raised beds--one for each grade in the K5 school. Not all of the plants were grown in the ground. Students also grew lettuce and flowers in a gutter, and about 10 pounds of potatoes in a straw-lined laundry basket. "I hope that students learn that even if they live in a small apartment, they can grow something in a container to supplement their table," Harkins says.

Though the garden does not produce enough food for the classes to take home, students have been eating healthy foods that aren't part of their diet, she says. "I cooked collard greens in the classroom, and every kid tried it. Out of 60 kids, 57 loved them."

Over the summer, members of a student urban agriculture club and other volunteers have raised pumpkins and gourds, which will be ready when classes resume in the fall. Harkins goes to farmer's markets to give away food and collect donations.


Nationally, more government grants are available for school gardens, including those from the USDA's Farm to School program. Companies and organizations, including Lowe's, the Whole Kids Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, now offer funds for these projects. Such grants--along with outside donations and volunteer labor--allow many schools to maintain gardens at little to no cost to the district, says Harkins. …

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