How school gardens build a two-generation path to food system change

By Kris Berggren

The benefits of a schoolyard garden are immense: getting kids to try new foods and get healthier is one. Connecting a garden to classroom subject matter is another. Developing heightened student – and parent — awareness of our food system and our choices as consumers is another, big-picture benefit.

“I see the power of kids and gardening and how it can connect them in ways that are all too rare today, not only with food but with nature. When I host a workshop with kids they stick their fingers in the ground right away. It is something that too few kids get to experience. It is magic,” said Kirsten Saylor, an educator and school garden consultant to St. Paul Public Schools.

What doesn’t happen by magic is the care and maintenance of a school garden. Advocates including Saylor believe that a paid school garden coordinator is the best insurance for a garden that thrives year in and year out and becomes a lasting asset to the school community and beyond. (See “Getting Serious About School Gardens”)

Students, families and communities benefit in several ways from school gardens.

First, gardens directly introduce children to the life cycle of plants and how their food grows.

“It is hands-on learning about how things grow and where our food comes from,” said Deb Dilley, a SNAP Education Health and Nutrition Programs educator in Bemidji.

Also there are many ways to integrate garden work into classroom curriculum in more than one subject area: science, math, English, cultural studies, art, health and nutrition. One resource, said Dilley, is Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom, a public-private partnership offering teachers curriculum to integrate gardens into their subjects.

“All lessons are geared toward [state academic] standards with easy lesson plans they can use,” Dilley said. Teachers may create their own lessons, such as creating a recipe book that students wrote and illustrated based on what they grew in the school garden.

Also, when children help tend plants in a garden they may reap social and emotional benefits, taking pride in their work and developing leadership skills.

“We believe social-emotional learning is foundational and that if students are thriving socially and emotionally, that will enhance their academics,” said Amanda Stoelb, associate director of Youth Farm, a nonprofit helping youth ages 9 – 24 engage in growing food and opening up access to healthy food. “Our mission is ‘We farm to grow.’ That means we grow communities, working in neighborhoods across Minneapolis and Saint Paul. We grow food. Some of our gardens are in schools. Most important to us is we grow young leaders.”

At an elementary school in Bemidji, children who participated in the Garden Club over the summer were recognized for their gardening success at a school assembly early in the academic year. They receive a certificate and small gift, and in the lunch room photos are displayed of the kids and the vegetables they grew. Their carrots, tomatoes and peppers are served in the school lunch salad bar in the fall.

“That is a fun way to pat the kids on the back and have the other kids in the school go, ‘Wow, you grew this,’ “ Dilley said, noting that most of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch because of their families’ low incomes. She said it’s critical to provide such opportunities to promote good health and combat the growing obesity rate among Americans, especially children and teens.

“We know that when kids grow their vegetables they are much more likely to eat them than when they are served to them and don’t know what they are. When they are exposed to gardening it opens their palate and opens their mind to trying more foods,” she said.

A school garden can be a springboard for family engagement with the school, with other families and within families. “Kids are great teachers to their family,” Dilley said. She believes teaching children how to cook with what they harvest is an important next step. “I have parents that have stopped me in the community and say, my kids now make sure we buy this, because they tasted this and they want us to buy that.”

And in the long term, advocates and educators say, as school gardens grow and become established within a school community, they become a first step toward food system change creating more access to healthy, locally grown, affordable food for consumers everywhere.

“When we talk about all the changes that need to happen about health, if you don’t build support in the family it’s a really long haul,” Saylor said. “It has to be a two-generation solution. It’s not easy! If it were easy it would be done. We have to keep talking and listening to people about where do they want to start taking steps. Sometimes they don’t know what the steps are…that is part of my job, to show what is possible.”