From ELIZABETH ARCHER
Anderson Valley Advertiser
With summer just starting, students are hardly thinking about next year’s classes. But unless a handful of dedicated educators can pull a rabbit out of their hat, students might find one of their favorite programs missing in the fall.
Twelve years ago, the Network for a Healthy California (NHC) paved the way for Mendocino County’s Garden Enhanced Nutrition Education (GENE) program. Thanks to this funding, Mendocino now has a unique claim to fame: every single public school in the county has a vegetable garden.
For the past decade, garden coordinators have worked with local organizations such as The Gardens Project of North Coast Opportunities Community Action, as well as other organizations and volunteers, to get these gardens up and running. Teachers have incorporated the gardens into their lessons, and the food services staff at some of the schools use what’s grown in the meals they serve.
These 32 gardens at the 32 public schools in unified school districts — plus all the private school gardens — serve more than 8,000 kids every year throughout Mendocino county.
However, in a devastating blow to this successful program, all NHC funding has been cancelled. Starting in the 2013-2014 school year, schools must find the funds to keep GENE running, or shut their gardens down.
“It’s ironic,” says GENE Program Coordinator Terry D’Selkie. “This year our gardens are better than ever before, and all of a sudden, the funding is gone.”
D’Selkie is working with each school’s garden coordinator — all of whom will be laid off unless a new funding stream is found — as well as school administration and staff, parents, and community members to find a long-term solution to keep the gardens running. She estimates that each school garden needs eight to ten thousand dollars a year to operate; a remarkably small amount considering the program’s benefits.
“Students love it,” says D’Selkie. “For many of them, it’s their favorite part of the day.” Since the program started, attendance levels are up. The cause? Students don’t want to miss out on garden time. GENE also helps attention span in the classroom, since kids are able to move their bodies and expend energy in the garden before heading back inside.
The traditional classroom does not address the learning styles of all students, and garden lessons are an eye-opener for kids who need to see something in action to really process it. “Science and math become much more interactive when it’s done in a living classroom,” says D’Selkie. In a report commissioned by the Center for Ecoliteracy in 2003, California middle school students who participated in garden-based instruction experienced significant gains in GPA, specifically math and science.
School gardens also help establish a pride of place among students. “We’re part of an agricultural community,” says Susan Lightfoot, Farm2Fork Coordinator. “These gardens help weave kids into the fabric of our community.” Teachers are also proud to work at schools with gardens. The same Ecoliteracy report showed that teachers working in schools with garden programs have higher morale and greater job satisfaction.
Of course, the garden programs also educate kids about nutrition and help them make healthy and lasting choices — the primary goal of NHC and a proven outcome of garden and nutrition education. In a study done by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed students involved in garden-based education more than doubled their daily fruit and vegetable consumption. “I learned to try new fruits and veggies,” says Cody Shepard, a student at Eagle Peak Middle School. “After seeing food grow, I am more aware of what I eat.”
Fall is just around the corner, and without significant commitment from every school board and the community to keep the GENE program afloat, these established gardens will revert to weeds. “When I think about the gardens being closed, I feel really sad,” says Shepard. “I see a lot of people growing gardens now, but I never would have started without learning about it in school first.”
If you’re interested in volunteering with or donating to your local school garden, contact Terry D’Selkie at firstname.lastname@example.org.