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Seeds of Change: The Value of School Gardens in Education and Community Health

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This is part of a series of multimedia stories curated through a collaboration between Earthworks Farm and KCETLink. Watch a segment from KCET's "SoCal Connected" and visit the project hub for more information.

One school is challenging the current model of school lunch. Watch the five-minute California Matters episode about it here.

Today in El Monte and South El Monte, you can find a number of Asian supermarkets with signs that tri-lingually display the words: supermarket, siêu thị, and supermercado. This wasn't the case thirty years ago. When my family first arrived to the San Gabriel Valley as refugees, they couldn't find particular foods in the supermarket. So we grew them -- lemongrass, herbs, and other hard-to-find vegetables. Gardening was and still is a norm for my Vietnamese family. In our yard, our mom grows a vegetable called bạc hà, known as (and looks like) a "giant elephant ear." My dad uses it to cook canh chua (sour soup), a popular Vietnamese meal made of catfish, pineapple, and tomatoes, all simmered in tamarind-flavored broth.

At school, I got to experience gardening activities too. Though these activities were not frequent, they were memorable. In Mr. Marquez's 5th grade science class at Dean L. Shively Middle School, we germinated lima beans by placing seeds between wet paper towels and put them in ziplock bags, then transferred them into disposable cups. In Ms. L'Allemand's biology class at South El Monte High School, we had a garden where I was given a plot to measure, plant, and grow two items. I chose peas and carrots. Students were asked to document plant growth and when our vegetables were ready for harvesting, we concluded the unit by having a garden eating party.

Gardening at school and at home can provide young people with learning opportunities, lasting skills, and positive, memorable experiences. But perhaps most importantly, gardening can help foster healthy lifestyles and encourage healthy eating with more nutritious foods -- something that communities like South El Monte and El Monte urgently need.

Alleviating Suburban Poverty with School and Community Gardens

Across the 12.4 square miles that collectively make up the El Monte and South El Monte area is a population of 133,591. In this culturally vibrant space, where you can easily get a delicious bowl of phở or pozole, lay suburban poverty and what some would call a food desert.

Healthy food access can be difficult and complex for low-income communities, which can result in poor health outcomes. These issues are directly tied to poverty which, interestingly, is most present not in urban cities, as one might assume, but increasingly in the suburbs. According to the authors of "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America," more people live below the poverty line in suburbs than in the country's big cities. And according to the U.S. Census, one in four people in El Monte and one in five people in South El Monte live in poverty.

Moreover, according to the Los Angeles Department of Health, one of three children and one of three adults in the El Monte and South El Monte area are obese. Obesity is tied into the choices we have and the choices we make about food. Yet what happens when we don't or seemingly don't have choices?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are "urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food." For many, it's difficult to think of communities like El Monte and South El Monte as food deserts because there are a few grocery stores, not to mention countless liquor stores that sell snacks and limited food items. However, just because Superior Grocer and Shun Fat Supermarket are in the community does not mean that there is a high consumption of fresh and healthy foods. In many stores, there are more chip varieties than apples. Many dietitians and medical doctors believe that access to unhealthy food can be equally bad as poor access to fresh and healthy foods. Yet, they also tell us that it's not about depriving ourselves of what we love, but rather moderation. In a community where chamango and boba are cross-cultural staples, it is important to celebrate our food while embracing new ways to learn about healthy food as a community. The authors of "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America" express the importance of communities in leading the way for collaborations and solutions by tapping into their collective strengths and objectives.

Fortunately, South El Monte and El Monte have already started leveraging local resources towards local empowerment. Earthworks Community Farm in South El Monte, for example, has become a vibrant resource in the community and is actively reaching beyond the farm and into schools to show students and their teachers how gardening can reconnect them with their food source and the land, and help them take more charge over their own health. Schools such as Akitoi Learning Center, a head start and preschool center, have integrated their garden into their curriculum and have supplemented its harvest into student lunches. The Center for Disease Control identifies school gardens as an effective obesity prevention strategy, since it provides students with a number of opportunities to practice skills and create positive behaviors such as diversifying our relationship with food.

Cultivating Nutrition & Learning

There's a reason why schools across the country and throughout the Greater Los Angeles area have started building gardens. By developing green thumbs, gardening activities cultivate the whole child as well as the whole community. Research shows that students who engage in school gardening activities are likely to experience academic, physical, emotional, social, and even behavioral benefits. In a sense, school gardens are also part of the broader well-being of an entire community. School garden are proven to:

  • Improve nutrition knowledge and attitude towards fruits and vegetables: Children who engage in gardening activities can instill pride in the foods that they grow. In doing so, they can also learn about the nutritional benefits of food and develop a more positive association to fruits and vegetables.
  • Increase interest in new foods: "Ew, what's that?" Rather than being fearful of unfamiliar foods, gardening fosters healthy food experiments for children, especially when paired with cooking opportunities.
  • Foster life skills: From working independently to collaboratively, gardening instills many life skills such as teamwork, self-understanding, leadership, decision-making skills, communication skills, and volunteerism.
  • Instill appreciation for the environment: Gardening engages students in understanding the ecosystem. Children not only learn about how food grows, but what it takes for food to grow. Gardening education can span areas like water conservation and land use.
  • Teach life-long lessons: Lessons and skills children learn from gardening are known to stay with children throughout adulthood. From appreciating nature to identifying seasonal vegetables and fruits, gardening can provide children life-long benefits.
  • Promote cultural awareness and intergenerational learning: For communities with high non-English speaking populations, there is often a cultural and linguistic gap between school children and their elders. School gardening has reportedly helped alleviate this gap as grandparents are teaching their grandchildren how to garden.

And yet, as many educators know, an increased emphasis on standardized testing has pushed out school activities that are not immediately perceived to support test performance. However, school gardening activities can adhere to standards while providing children with interdisciplinary and hands-on learning, in the following ways:

  • Literacy: Gardening can teach and engage children a number of literacy skills. For example, children can read informational materials such as seed packets and reference books. It may also be necessary for them to conduct Internet research. In addition, children can engage in writing field notes and reflections about what and how they grow food.
  • Mathematics: Through gardening children engage in activities like measuring the depth of seed planting and the distance required between them. In addition, they will need to calculate the time and the amount of water it takes for their plants to grow.
  • Science: By engaging in gardening, children are naturally engaged in scientific inquiry. In fact, many advocates consider school gardens to be the "living laboratory." Children can apply scientific principles to design and articulate their scientific method, state their hypothesis, as well as document the process and outcome.

Innovative Problem-Solving

While parents, teachers, and administrators may be sold on the idea and benefits of school gardening, there can be barriers or challenges along the way. Two of the main challenges are leadership and land: Who will drive the idea and efforts, and where will the school gardens be?

The driving force to any initiative is leadership; however, who we perceive as a leader can be complicated. Gardening initiatives have been known to be driven by teachers, parents, students, administrators, or a combination of some or all. In fact, most school gardening advocates suggest developing a committee. Whether it's a team or a single person, it requires the will and the follow-through of the leader(s) to move gardening efforts forward.

Limitations in land availability at schools can be a barrier in creating a garden. However, many school gardens have found innovative ways to grow. Schools that lack soil space are developing raised or container gardens. Some classrooms are growing indoor gardens through planters or even creating innovative vertical gardens.

Already we see strong examples of gardens that bring together schools with community to make school gardens that are supported by the local community. In Los Angeles, at Micheltorena Elementary and North Hollywood High School, gardens have been created that are run by teachers, students, parents, and other locals, in a collaborative effort that benefits both school and community.

In El Monte, Arroyo High School is just one of numerous schools that have committed themselves to creating a school garden. Though still in the early stages of building their garden, students from KCET's Youth Voices program have begun their own garden journey by putting shovel to earth, raising funds with fruit infused waters (aguas frescas) and building collaborations with teachers as well as local environmental stewards such as Amigos de los Rios.

School gardens can be made possible with some organizing and creative thinking, and can be the beginning or a product of a larger community effort. To mobilize or foster support for school gardening, there is a number of things that anyone in the community can do. Here are some examples:

  • Speak up: If you are interested in a school or community garden for your neighborhood, talk to your local council member, school principal, or teacher. Simply having a conversation can lead to many great things such as the beginning of a school garden.
  • Volunteer: Roll up your sleeves and help out. School gardens are most effective when everyone pitches in.
  • Donations and Sponsors: From dollar stores to hardware stores, seek out local businesses that can help sponsor gardening activities with materials they already carry, such as seeds, shovels, and gloves.
  • Recycle and Compost: Many school gardening activities can be supported by repurposing materials into other uses. Save organic materials such as food waste that can be composted into rich soil for healthy plants. Plastic bottles and milk cartons can be reused into seedling planters. Even popsicle sticks can be used to mark plants.
  • Support your garden: Many school and community gardens have been able to sustain and grow their garden by finding innovative ways to fundraise and engage with the community-at-large. Some, like Earthworks Farm, have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for which individuals can purchase a membership and receive fresh produce directly from the source, while at the same time support the farm operation.

School gardening is not some novelty movement. Supporting school gardens means we are supporting our youth and their learning, as well as forging a new and improved relationship with food.

University of California Cooperative Extension
Food Hub
Let's Move
National Farm to School Network
School Garden Wizard
USDA Food and Nutrition Service

Blair, D. (March 08, 2010). The Child in the Garden: An Evaluative Review of the Benefits of School Gardening. Journal of Environmental Education, 40, 2, 15-38.

Center for Disease Control. (2015). School-Based Obesity Prevention Strategies for State Policymakers. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/policy/pdf/obesity_prevention_strategies.pdf

Gibbs, L., Staiger, P. K., Johnson, B., Block, K., Macfarlane, S., Gold, L., Kulas, J., ... Ukoumunne, O. (March 01, 2013). Expanding Children's Food Experiences: The Impact of a School-Based Kitchen Garden Program. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 45, 2, 137-146.

Hume, A., Wetten, A., Feeney, C., Taylor, S., O'Dea, K., & Brimblecombe, J. (June 01, 2014). Remote school gardens: exploring a cost-effective and novel way to engage Australian Indigenous students in nutrition and health. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 38, 3, 235-240.

Kameshwari, P. (January 01, 2004). Hortaliza: A Youth "Nutrition Garden" in Southwest Detroit. Children Youth and Environments, 14, 2, 124-155.

Kneebone, E., & Berube, A. (2013). Confronting suburban poverty in America.

Lineberger, S. E., & Zajicek, J. M. (January 01, 2000). School Gardens: Can a Hands-on Teaching Tool Affect Students' Attitudes and Behaviors Regarding Fruit and Vegetables?. Horttechnology Alexandria Va-, 10, 593-596.

Lohr, V. I., & Pearson-Mims, C. H. (January 01, 2005). Special Section: Youth in Horticulture - Children's Active and Passive Interactions with Plants Influence Their Attitudes and Actions toward Trees and Gardening as Adults. Horttechnology, 15, 3, 472.

Robinson, C. W., & Zajicek, J. M. (January 01, 2005). Growing Minds: The Effects of a One-year School Garden Program on Six Constructs of Life Skills of Elementary School Children. Horttechnology Alexandria Va-, 15, 3, 453-457.

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