I have a confession to make. It is hard to publicly admit this but, I think I'm ready and here is goes. I have been skeptical about school gardens. (Gasp! I know). True, I advocate for healthy eating for kids and basically support, any and all strategies to encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables at school or at home. But I have not been a fan of school gardens (more on that below). Yet, I have been inspired recently by the work of Stephen Ritz of Green Bronx Machine and by Edible Schoolyard NYC. I dare say I am so impressed that I might become a school garden convert.
(Note: Applications are now being accepted to be an Edible Schoolyard NYC Showcase School. Find more details here. Deadline is soon!)
School gardens are feel-good stories in the making, for sure. Furthermore, it makes sense that they would make a difference. Gardens provide hand-on lessons that show kids where carrots come from, "from the earth and not aisle 9 in the grocery store" as Stephen Ritz would say. School gardens provide chances for kids to eat leafy greens that they grew themselves, while learning about science and nature. And it's hard not to love the images of smiling kids holding up vegetables freshly pulled from the earth, or chomping down on a kale salad for maybe the first time. So what's my issue?
Let it be said that I am a gardener myself, and this maybe why I am skeptical. Gardening is hard, especially in the urban environment with poor soil (often filled with lead and other chemicals) and lack of easy water access. (Water access probably doesn't even cross the minds our suburban garden counterparts.) Gardening can have significant start-up costs. (My grandfather talks about the $300 peach he grew one year. That's how much he invested in caring for the tree that yielded just one fruit.) Gardening, like farming, can be plagued by failure, as it is dependent on so many vagaries in weather and soil that you never know what you are going to get. This is the life of a gardener--thorns as well as roses.
Furthermore, school gardens work against the growing season calendar. Just when the gardens need the most care, school is out for the summer. Just when the plants need the most water, no one is home to water them. In a typical urban schoolyard, the sun beats down on the blacktop and dries up that garden in no time. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I have unfortunately seen many a dry and neglected school garden. All these reasons have lead me to be a school garden skeptic.
Recently, at the 2012 TedxManhattan conference, I learned about a two projects that are restoring my faith in urban school gardening: Green Bronx Machine and Edible Schoolyard NYC.
Stephen Ritz's talk about Green Bronx Machine at TedxManhattan was a true revelation about the power of gardening in young people's lives. If anyone can make you a believer, it is him. Just watch, enjoy and cheer.
Working in the Bronx, "in the poorest Congressional District in the county," Ritz is not just growing seeds, he is truly growing lives. For him, gardening is a stepping stone to broader skills that the middle and high school students in his school desperately need. I love that his program is not just about "little kids." It is mainly targeted at teenagers who are often overlooked as potential change-agents in their own lives. These are kids that need a break and urban gardening is giving it to them: job skills, math and science skills, the chance to care for something that grows and can be tended for without judgement or fear, and most importantly, an opportunity to see themselves differently. Teenagers are very close to living on their own, making life choices now that will follow them forever, for better or worse. Stephen Ritz's program is showing at-risk kids a path that they perhaps never knew about. They are learning carpentry skills, marketing skills and skills in the kitchen that can help them cook everyday meals for themselves or start a career in culinary arts. Plus these kids, who are at very high risk of dropping out, have an incentive to come into school everyday because there is something living and growing in that classroom that they care about and are interested in. Plants are not abstract; they are right there, growing in front of you, needing your care. That's a powerful message of hope.
A second project, Edible Schoolyard NYC had caught my attention earlier this year, but I didn't understand the full extent of their programming until recently, when its name came up again and again at TedxManhattan. Based on Alice Waters' famous Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, CA, Edible Schoolyard NYC (@ESNYC) is the first of its kind in New York City and is set in PS216, a Title I elementary school in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Unlike the school graden programs I've seen, Edible Schoolyard doesn't just put in some planters, plant some seeds and call it a day. They have a rich and fully integrated curriculum that teaches kids in an age-appropriate way and incorporates New York State standards of science, math and English. They are in it for the long-haul, setting up a kitchen curriculum, establishing evaluation standards (are kids eating better? are grades improving?) and thinking about how their students will develop from ages 5 to 10, exploring and learning from the garden.
As an advocate of family dinner, Family Cooking Nights and Harvest/Market Days are the parts of the Edible Schoolyard program that excite me the most. It is crucial to connect with parents and get them as excited as the kids are about good food and healthy eating. To truly make a difference, school garden programs must work with parents so that the lessons from school come home. No one wants that kale salad a child enjoyed at school to be the first and last of his life. That salad should be the first of many and part of a long-lasting change for the whole family at mealtimes. School gardens can start a dialogue between parents and kids, spurring the kids ask for vegetables at the grocery store, not just junk food.
Edible Schoolyard NYC is expanding to have showcase schools in all five boroughs of New York and will provide this incredible program at no-cost to the schools. The exciting news is that applications are being accepted now for Title I schools in the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island. If you know a school that could benefit, please pass it on. (My kids' public schools are not eligible as they are in Brooklyn, otherwise I might be keeping this to myself!)
Learn more about the fabulous program at Edible Schoolyard and spread the word about their new grant, deadline February 28, 2012.
You can support the wonderful work of either Stephen Ritz, Bronx Green Machine by buying a cool T-shirt or Edible Schoolyard NYC with a donation.