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From DC to Denver, Gardens Revitalize Schools

Planting at Denver's Bradley International School in 2013.

Bradley, post-planting, in 2013.

The farm at Schmitt Elementary in Denver.

Food grown at a DC school.

DC Greens supports and sustains school gardens within DC Public Schools.

School gardens, a second classroom of sorts where hands-on learning reigns supreme, are cropping up (pun intended) across the nation, breathing fresh life into public schools.Two cities in particular -- Denver and Washington, D.C. -- are changing the way their gardens grow with innovative additions to their programming.
"What happens in D.C. is really exciting and, in a number of ways, different," says DC Greens Executive Director Lauren Shweder Biel, whose organization connects local communities to healthy food. As part of that mission, DC Greens supports and sustains school gardens within DC Public Schools (DCPS). These gardens function as an outdoor classroom, offering unique learning opportunities that provide lessons in problem solving, teamwork, nutrition, agriculture, seasonality, and locality -- and, best of all, they are places where kids can dig in the dirt, play with worms, and just be themselves. 

"We have a supportive city council," says Biel. The Healthy Schools Act, passed in 2010 and funded by a soda tax, created a grant-making process to support school gardens by providing $10,000 to $15,000 in grant money to schools looking to start or sustain a garden. 

The grant not only allows schools to hire folks to care for the gardens, it insists on it -- with up to 80 percent of funds allowed to go toward maintenance staffing. "It takes much more than putting in infrastructure," says Biel. And that's where DC Greens comes in. DC Greens supports and sustains school gardens within DC Public Schools.

The organization doesn't plant gardens in schools. Rather, it provides resources and support to the teachers and staff who do. "We try to make sure everybody is resourced up," Biel explains. To accomplish this, DC Greens creates a professional network of garden-based educators and hosts free workshops for teachers. Participating educators receive free seedlings and instructional materials for use in their classrooms. 

There are roughly 200 charter and public schools in DCPS; 93, reports Biel, house school gardens. Gardens are built using a variety of funds -- grants from the Healthy Schools Act are augmented with other small donations from, say, the Whole Kids Foundation, Home Depot, or extra PTA money…or a farmer's market at the school.

But we'll get into that in a bit. First, we have to journey to Denver, where the whole thing got started.

In 2001, a small group of parents planted a few gardens in four public schools. And what started as a modest program designed to get kids outdoors and educate them on healthy eating has since morphed into a massive operation encompassing nearly 100 gardens at 26 middle and high schools and 72 elementary schools within the Denver Public Schools (DPS) district.

"If there's a cohort of teachers who want to get outside with students and do hands-on learning, a school garden offers that opportunity," says Abbie Noriega, Communications and Development Coordinator for Denver Urban Gardens (DUG). 

The introduction of new school gardens has been funded entirely through grant and bond money, and, while DPS does not provide funding, the district's Sustainability Office helps with grant writing, says Annie Chensoff, Garden Intern with DPS's Sustainability Office. When it comes to maintaining a garden, local nonprofit organizations like DUG and Slow Food Denver provide support. 

"At first, misconceptions about what was allowable by the health department meant students couldn't eat food they grew," explains Andy Nowak of Slow Food International. In order to make garden food consumable, Slow Food Denver worked with Denver's Department of Environmental Health to establish protocols that permit students to safely gather produce. Now in its fifth year of operation, this garden-to-cafeteria program lets students harvest their crop and sell it to the cafeteria at wholesale prices. Over seventeen schools participate in the program, and during the 2013-2014 school year, DPS served over 1,000 pounds of student-grown produce.

"If a school wants to provide a resource to the local community and lift some responsibility from the teachers, then a community garden is another option," explains Noriega. In Colorado DUG is the go-to organization for schools looking to install and maintain school-based community gardens, which differ slightly from school gardens. 

"We have 135 active community gardens in our network, and more than 40 of them are school-based," says Noriega.

Farmer's marketsBradley, post-planting, in 2013.

"Move over, bake sale," says DC Greens's Biel. You'll find robust school garden programs in many states, but D.C. and Denver are at the forefront when it comes to offering full-scale, student-run farmer's markets. 

Market participants open stands and sell their produce to parents and neighbors. Depending on the market and age of participants, a stand might be on school grounds and mostly used by the school community. Markets staffed by middle and high school students might be set up outside school borders where budding salespeople interact with a broader consumer base. "Older kids really have to engage their community in order to turn a profit since there aren't set pick-up times at these schools," explains Biel. 

The markets give students hands-on lessons in business by building communication skills and strengthening self-confidence. And DC Greens has been working with The Carlyle Group to build a mini-MBA curriculum for elementary students. 

DC Greens developed the DCPS farmers market program after hearing a presentation from Slow Food Denver at a conference last year. "My education director was so impressed that we decided to launch it here," Biel says. 

"It is exciting because it serves so many purposes at once: raising money for the school garden program, providing hands-on math and marketing skills, teaching students about seasonality and agriculture," Biel adds. What's more, she says, youth farmer's markets transform schools into a food access points by offering healthy food to communities. 

"Most of our school-based community gardens are located in food insecure neighborhoods," Noriega says. "Our markets provide access to good, fresh food." In D.C., every market is outfitted with a SNAP terminal for accepting food stamps. 

Even in affluent areas, though, folks have been excited to purchase their produce from school gardens. "This can be a great fundraising tool for schools," says Noriega. Biel tells of one D.C. school that keeps four chickens and sells a few eggs each week. "Those eggs almost become auction items, where people started paying $5 dollars per egg," she says. 

Profits derived from farmer's markets help sustain the school gardens. DCPS launched its pilot farmer's market season last fall, and each of the six participating schools turned a profit that was immediately reinvested, reports Biel. A spring program is set to begin this month with ten schools participating. In Denver, youth farmer's markets have grown exponentially since inception. During the 2012-2013 school year the program produced 141 markets in 32 schools and grossed nearly $9,000. School gardens are 100 percent self-sufficient when coupled with youth farmer's markets and Garden-to-Table programming. 

School-based agriculture

Recently, DPS began converting some unused property into urban farmland. At Denver Green School (DGS), a fertile piece of land was repurposed into a vegetable patch after DGS discovered produce thriving on drip irrigation required less water than sod. With this realization, the first DPS school farm was born.

Today, DPS has three farms. Produce Denver manages those at Bradley International and Schmitt Elementary in northeast Denver, while the hyper-local Sprout City Farms runs DGS's plot. Noriega loves the school farms and explains that they're primarily about food production. 

"Kids might be involved in an educational way, but the farms are not their space," says Noriega. An adjacent community garden is where kids dig in dirt, do outdoor lessons, and are involved in day-to-day care. "Our goal is to get lots of good produce into the cafeterias," says DPS farm to school coordinator Anne Wilson. Last year, Schmitt Elementary alone grew over 10,000 pounds of tomatoes. 

"It's an exciting time to be doing this work," says Biel, crediting Michelle Obama for putting the issue of healthy eating in schools at the forefront of the nation's conscious. "I think we are only scratching the surface with how big this can get."

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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