Sowing the Seeds of Change in Chicago: The New “Gardeneers”

gardeneers_1.JPGAbout forty children were crouched into small balls on the ground in front of vegetable planters. “Let’s pretend we’re seeds,” Adam Zmick, a former Teach-for-America instructor, told them. “What do seeds need to grow?” Hands shot up eagerly from down by the ground.

On a sunny Tuesday earlier this week, at Rowe Elementary School in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago, I visited a worksite of the new Gardeneers, a small organization started last fall that is bringing gardening services and education to public schools in the Chicago area. The group was founded by Adam and May Tsupros, and has already enrolled five schools. Four of their five locations have 90 percent or higher levels of subsidized lunches.

The conversation that day between the Gardeneers and the students included how to plant seeds and water them, the parts of plants and their functions, and the balance of nitrogen with other nutrients in the soil. Pickling came up, logically connected to the talk of cucumbers, and the kids rated the vegetables that they liked (and didn’t like) to eat. 

gardeneers_2.JPGThe Gardeneers – Margo Mejia, Randy Jamrok, May Tsupros, Amanda Fieldman, and Adam Zmick.

Gardeneers’ new programs provide consistent support and curriculum on nutrition, biology, and health to accompany the planting, nurturing, and watering of seedlings by the students. “About half of the schools that start gardens cannot maintain them through the school year. So we started a program to ensure that unused space is well maintained, all throughout the year,” May explained.

gardeneers_3.JPGFieldman working with students at Rowe Elementary.

The Gardeneers are ambitious, aiming to grow the program to include 25 schools as early as next spring. They also hope, wherever possible, that the garden’s harvests will be used as supplements in school snacks or meals. Because they are certified in Illinois’ Garden to Cafeteria program, they are well able to take the steps to manage food safely and to track their results.

As research shows, they are finding that the programs fill a need. “Many preschoolers don’t know what a root is, and they think that food only comes from a store,” said Adam. “The kids get excited when the radishes appear, and one girl told me that this was the first time she had ever tried lettuce.”  

gardeneers_5.JPGJamrok and students discover grown radishes with much excitement.

The curriculum is flexible and evolving – the lessons can involve biology, math, art, nutrition or practical skills like cooking. And the close observation and patience that students develop are good practice for scientific endeavors of all kinds. The Gardeneers also send students home with seeds and plants to care for, which introduces children to the cyclical nature of living organisms.


Leftovers from a meal with the kids provides a lesson in worm composting.

Their work is supported by foundation grants and funding for wellness programs at several of the schools. They form the latest addition to an active network of organizations in Chicago working to transform the urban landscape. With WBEZ Chicago and other partners, the group is currently planning an upcoming Day of Action in which the students will take their extra plants to houses in the neighborhood, and help residents to install their own small gardens.

gardeneers_4.JPGMejia and students examine the vegetable boxes (donated by partner, Kitchen Community) which hold heirloom and organic varieties, including broccoli, lettuce, peas, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, and herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, sage, and lavender, courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange

One plant at a time and one student at a time, the Gardeneers are increasing awareness of healthier foods and showcasing the simple but practical steps needed to sustain them in the city.

You can read more about their efforts on Food Tank, and support their work here.
















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