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Fresh lessons sprout in urban school gardens

Big city school districts grow gardens to teach nutrition, science, and even storytelling
Students at the Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Academy Charter School grow tomatoes, squash, eggplants and other vegetables in a rooftop garden.
Students at the Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Academy Charter School grow tomatoes, squash, eggplants and other vegetables in a rooftop garden.

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.

And in the District of Columbia, school gardens have won political support. In 2010, the D.C. Council created a grant program that gives 22 schools $10,000 each year to plant gardens and teach nutrition. Paying a full-time manager may be the biggest challenge, says Sarah Bernardi, school program director for DC Greens, a nonprofit that trains teachers to raise funds and plan lessons around gardens. With shrinking budgets and a focus on testing, it can be difficult for administrators to find funding for another staff member. Sometimes two schools with gardens will share the cost of a manager, who can split their time.

At many schools, including Edwins Elementary in Okaloosa, teachers are working overtime without pay to care for the garden. “The gardens with a full-time staff person flourish and become integrated into the school,” Bernardi says. “Otherwise, it’s like having a library without a librarian. With nobody running them, the gardens can be a mess.”

Teacher training

No matter who tends to the garden, teachers in every subject can incorporate the space into lesson plans. However, they often need some training, says Ellen Robinson, manager of programs and services at REAL School Gardens, a nonprofit that builds learning gardens in high-poverty elementary schools.

“There is a great deal of demand, but if it’s not done with the entire school community and if it is missing teacher training, it’s more likely to fail over the long term,” Robinson says.

REAL School Gardens is working with 100 schools, many of them in Texas, and plans to expand nationwide. The organization partners with schools for three years, helping to fundraise, design, and build the garden. The nonprofit also shows teachers how to integrate gardens into the curriculum. For example, multiplication can be taught with seeds or students can be shown examples of erosion in a lesson about climate.

Academic gains

The academic benefits of school gardens can be significant, Robinson says, especially in low-income areas. Elementary school students who participated in gardening activities scored higher on science achievement tests compared to students who only received classroom instruction, according to a 2005 study in the journal HortTechnology.

Robinson says her organization’s partner schools have seen the number of students passing standardized tests increase by 15 percent. There also have been some gains in science scores.

“We know anecdotally that students are more engaged when in an outdoor setting, doing things that are more hands-on and integrated with different subject areas,” Robinson says. “It makes learning more interesting and engaging, and allows them to learn the concepts in a deeper way than they would watching a video.”

School gardening also improved self-esteem, helped students develop a sense of responsibility, and increased parental involvement, according to a 1998 report from the nonprofit volunteer organization Bexar County Master Gardeners in Texas.

“Right now, the culture of our public school system is very testing-centric, and if administrators don’t think it’s going to have an impact on student achievement, they are not going to put the investment into it, be it computers or gardens,” Robinson says. “They need to know it’s going to have a positive impact on student success. This is not just about making learning fun, but making it meaningful and more authentic.”

Common Core connection

Gardens can be used to teach Common Core standards in science, English, and many other subjects, Harkins from Okaloosa County says. Third graders at the school tested how well tomato plants grew with different fertilizers. Harkins’ fifth grade class wrote essays about the process of planting. And a first grade teacher used a garden bed full of flowers for a lesson on colors after reading a book about rainbows.

Los Angeles USD partnered with the nonprofit Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust to build the Freemont High School Wellness Center. The center includes a clinic and a garden, which students who want to pursue careers in medicine and agriculture will use. “The garden becomes a space where you can apply any of the K12 Common Core requirements,” says Ana Lasso, LAUSD’s special facilities manager. “And it gives students an opportunity to get out of the classroom and put some of the theories to practice.”

Forty percent of Freemont High students are overweight or obese, and the clinic provides free or reduced-rate medical services to students, staff, and community members. A greenhouse adjacent to the clinic will serve as an indoor classroom, community gathering area, and a farmer’s market, Lasso says.

The district spent $4 million building the clinic and garden, with money from a district construction program. And the district plans to open 15 more school-based wellness centers with gardens in high-need areas. “We’ve received a lot of positive reviews,” Lasso says. “It was a fallow space of land on campus for so long, and the garden has really brightened up that corner. The school is very excited.”