Putting Down Roots: Is Your School Garden Here to Stay?

I was interested, but perhaps not surprised, to see that one of our most popular webinars for Food Day organizers this year was the one focused on schools and school gardens, and that hundreds of the 3,200 events on our map took place at elementary and secondary schools.  With the support of the National Education Association, the National Gardening Association, the Massachusetts Department of Education, National Farm to School Network, and hundreds of other school partners, Food Day reached millions of schoolchildren in 2012.

In Cleveland, OH, the city launched a hoop-house design contest on Food Day in which the winning school will get a free hoop-house.  In Durham, NC, Durham Public Schools had a “vine-cutting” ceremony for their new farm.  Gateway Greening in St. Louis, MO got dozens of schools to participate in a Sweet Potato Challenge to get kids outdoors, harvesting and tasting new produce they helped to grow.


Students in St. Louis, MO harvest sweet potatoes and learn in the garden for Food Day - Photo Credit Don Cochran

These days, as everyone is beginning to go into hibernation for the holidays, there is one question on my mind: are all those school gardens going to come back in full force after winter is over?

Full disclosure: my interest in school garden programs is what led me to my work with Food Day. As an employee at Yale’s Sustainable Food Project, I learned what it was like to be part of a community sharing in the maintenance of one beautiful little plot of earth, and I learned the feeling of satisfaction one could get from tasting the first harvest from that little plot. It took me until college to see the light, but many kids are getting exposed to gardening at a young age.  After First Lady Michelle Obama started the White House garden, things really took off. In California alone, there are 4,000 gardens and counting according to some estimates, and countless more around the country.

After that first experience, I had the opportunity to work at Forestview Elementary in Durham, NC, helping a family friend to construct an edible garden and revitalize the school science lab in a labor of love. We poured hours into making it happen (she and her husband gave far more hours than me) and finally the day arrived when the kids could start harvesting.  It was so exciting to see them taste things, draw the leaves of the plants, and notice something that they hadn’t before!

After a glorious spring, summer, and fall, however, the fate of the garden became uncertain.  Our friends were moving out of town and with no one set to take their place; it was unclear how the garden would be maintained.  I began to wish that every school had a permanent garden instructor so that no one would ever have to see all that hard work go to waste.


Forestview Elementary School Garden in 2009

But don’t worry, there’s a happy ending. Forestview still has a thriving plot, thanks to some dedicated parents and students, and they are looking for ways to make it more sustainable.

Are you in a similar situation? Consider getting youth ages 5-25 to submit an application for this grant from Sodexo: 

Youth Service America and Sodexo Foundation are calling on young people to join the fight to end childhood hunger. Grants of $500 are available for youth ages 5-25 that live in the U.S. for projects to take place on or around Global Youth Services Day, April 26-28, 2013. Deadline for application is January 31, 2013.

Find out more here: In step 5 of the application (“If you are affiliated with a YSA partner, and received a partner grant application code, please enter it here”) all applicants should enter the code “FoodDay”.

It could mean the difference between a barren, sad-looking school garden and a veritable vegetable cornucopia!

Catherine Kastleman is one of two full-time Food Day Project Coordinators. She came to Food Day after finishing her undergraduate degree in American Studies with a concentration in Food, Health, and Environment at Yale University. As an undergraduate, Catherine was an employee of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which helped to spark her interest in sustainable farming systems. After graduation she spent several months working on organic farms in France and then as an EBT/SNAP outreach coordinator at her hometown farmers' market in Carrboro, North Carolina. Email Catherine Kastleman.

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