School gardens are difficult to keep growing

Beets, cabbage, and tomatoes are some of the crops at this school garden in Lawrence, Kan. (Photo by Payne Roberts, Harvest Public Media)
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August 14, 2013 - 6:30am

As students head back to school, many are also headed back to the garden. School gardens are on the rise, offering a chance to learn about math and science through a hands-on experience. But they can be more work than some teachers are prepared for.

John Pendleton is owner of Pendleton’s Country Market, a staple at Lawrence, Kan., area farmers' markets. His family farm has been growing and selling food for more than 30 years – a storied history that can be traced back to a half-acre of asparagus.

“We planted the asparagus and quickly realized we had no control over the business,” Pendleton said. “The demand for asparagus was and continues to be very, very strong.”

At the Clinton Parkway Nursery Farmers' Market on a recent summer weekday, Pendleton’s stand was stocked and eagerly awaiting the next customer.

Several stands down – his competition: three students from Southwest Junior High in Lawrence selling potatoes, cucumbers and an array of herbs that were all grown in their school garden. It’s their second summer in the market, but this year the school tried something new – asparagus. 

 “We’re hoping to expand the variety that we can offer and the experience for our kids and our community,” said Perry Kennard, garden coordinator and 7th grade science teacher at the school.

While Pendleton said school gardens like this one won’t really harm his business, he did feel an impact after several area restaurants stopped purchasing produce from his business.

“A particular restaurant might not be taking that much stuff,” Pendleton said. “But if you take two or three restaurants and pool it together, then it makes it worthwhile to make a delivery and if all of a sudden they’re buying from the kids because it’s the politically correct thing to do, we maybe have lost a market that way.”

The number of school gardens in the United States has exploded in popularity over the past decade according to Chelsey Simpson, communications associate for the National Farm to School Network. These programs typically operate by student and volunteer labor, with funding from donations and grants.

Most often, the produce is used in school cafeterias, but because the growing season doesn’t coincide with the school year, the question of how to most effectively use school gardens in the summertime is often a concern.

“They start off by saying they can run it through the school kitchens and things like that, but the majority of the produce that they raise isn’t in the school year,” Pendleton said. “It’s part of the school gardens people really don’t think about.”

Southwest Junior High also sells shares in its bounty to parents and faculty through a Community Supported Agriculture program, and it donates some food to the school cafeteria. However, because the growing season and school year don’t align, less than 10 percent of that food is served at the school.

Summertime also causes difficulty when enlisting labor assistance, leaving the work to volunteers and teachers.

“There’s more to the coordinator position than I originally envisioned,” Kennard said. “One of the advantages of being a teacher is that you have your summers off. Well, I don’t have my summers off anymore.”

And the burden isn’t reduced once the school year returns, as teachers then must cultivate their gardens and their students.

Stephen Ritz is a teacher and administrator from the South Bronx who advocates nationwide for school gardens. What began as an outdoor activity to enhance his lessons turned into the Green Bronx Machine. This organization is composed entirely of students in the South Bronx who are building gardens and other green structures across the city. His school garden success story has been the feature of a Ted Talk.

At a recent meeting of community stakeholders in Lawrence school gardens, Ritz addressed the typical challenges associated with these projects.

“It’s easier to get involved in this well-intended, but not understand the labor involved,” Ritz said.

He touched on issues like labor, community involvement and fundraising.

Funding school gardens is easier said than done. Grants and donations can only provide temporary assistance and relying on the school budget can leave these projects vulnerable to cuts. Simpson, of the National Farm to School Network, said it’s important school gardens are viewed as an instructional tool rather than just an extracurricular activity.

“The garden is just another textbook,” Simpson said. “It’s another place to learn, except for unlike a textbook it’s really hands on - kids can see the lessons come to life.”

However, Ritz said these gardens are more successful today because educators are tying them to academics as compared to the traditional model where school gardens were used as an excuse to move class outdoors in pleasant weather.

“Now we’re talking about percent germination, we’re talking about reading, we’re talking about writing, we’re talking about documenting the process, we’re talking about math we’re talking about making connections and the whole process as opposed to just being out there and digging in the dirt,” Ritz said.

For Kennard, the short-term obstacles do not outweigh the lessons that can last a lifetime.

“For the average student at Southwest, that’s our main goal, that they’re learning to eat a little healthier and learning where their food comes from,” Kennard said.

The National Farm to School Network expects the number of school gardens to increase. For now, there appears to be plenty of room for them at farmers' markets as the market for locally grown food increases.




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