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Are School Gardens Built to Last?

It is promising to see the increasingly widespread public and private support of school gardens in the US. Acceptance of school gardens as relevant teaching tools for health and nutrition is on the rise – from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to the USDA Food and Nutrition Services program and an ever-growing network of corporate and private sponsors, for-profit and nonprofit organizations.
However, is teaching about health and nutrition all that school gardens can do? And more importantly, are school garden programs being built to last?
Innovation in school garden education is thriving, especially with increasing state-by-state approval of the Common Core and Next Generation Science standards, within which a hands-on, interdisciplinary school garden program naturally fits.
More schools are utilizing their gardens as platforms for “Project-Based” and “Linked Learning,” as well as being integrated as “Design Thinking” and “STE[A]M (Science, Technology, Engineering, [Art] and Math)” laboratories for addressing real world environmental and social problems.
Other programs are more vocational, geared directly toward the agricultural sciences, culinary arts, or entrepreneurship. Some programs even go as far as integrating food grown in the gardens into school lunch and cafeteria programs.
This impactful work should be encouraged, celebrated and most of all, funded! However, at Grow Your Lunch, we dare to ask a more obvious yet less discussed question:
With more and more school gardens sprouting up every year, why are thriving school gardens still the exception and not the rule?
The primary challenge is that small grants are awarded each year to school gardens but there is rarely an allotment of funding for staffing.
Thus, taking care of the garden often falls on the shoulders of overworked teachers, parent volunteers and retired neighbors, and no one is ultimately accountable for its success.
Some great organizations such as FoodCorps and Education Outside are addressing this issue by placing service corps members in schools to lead health, nutrition and science education and programming on school campuses.
The second biggest challenge we see is that there is a significant lack of gardening knowledge within the diverse school communities that we serve.
Most school communities (parents, teachers, admin, community members) do not have enough experience with growing food and teaching in an outdoor environment in order to run an effective school garden program. In the United States, we have been losing our agricultural heritage for the last 60–70 years and it’s going to take time and a lot of hard work for us to regain it.
Sadly, more often than not, a school garden becomes a barren, dumping ground of old broken tools, "donated" garden pots, and scrap building materials. Overgrown, rotting raised beds and neglected fruit trees that have not been pruned are commonplace. Fertility is low and irrigation systems, if they exist, are often faulty or non-functional.
Once the ribbon cutting ceremony fades into distant memory and the weeds swallow the space, the school garden becomes yet another example of broken promises, even urban blight.
So what’s the solution? First of all, there are a few myths that need dispelling:
I. Volunteers will run our program!
Before building a garden program, consider the cost of a stipend for a full or part-time garden coordinator. The other option is to build a partnership with a local non-profit that can provide this kind of staffing support.
II. We can start a garden with this $500 grant!
It costs more than a few hundred dollars to set a garden up for success. Consider a fundraising goal of at least $5,000 before you begin. Good building materials and tools are not cheap and your teaching team will need professional development. You might even need to hire an architect or engineer if you plan to build any overhead structures or ADA accessible pathways.
Operating expenses once the garden is set up should hover around $2,000 per year (to cover costs of seeds, starts, tool and irrigation repair, compost, mulch, etc.).
III. Build it and they will come!
The building phase of the project is the easy part. A garden can be built over a weekend or two, or even from a kit. Think of building the garden as an ongoing process that continues over the years and let the physical space reflect the diverse interests, needs and skill sets of your community as they evolve over time.
The more diverse the stakeholder group is from the beginning and throughout the garden’s evolution, the more likely it is that the program will be supported down the road. Remember the ecological principle: Diversity ensures resilience in living communities. This holds true consistently in all garden programs as well.
IV. We have an “expert” on our team!
Having experts on your team is essential. Just make sure that the experts in your community are people who are willing to listen, work hard, try new things, think unconventionally and be collaborative – putting their own thoughts and opinions aside when necessary. Being an expert in a school garden program means being an expert listener, someone who knows how to delegate and be an “empowerment mastermind.”
With these myths dispelled, we move forward in our school gardens, regardless of their stage of development, and recall the wisdom from our colleagues at the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley: “Start small and dig deep.”
There is no “one size fits all” plan for a school garden. How a garden fits into the culture, climate and community at any given school can vary widely and will change over time. Quality should take precedence over quantity. For example, it’s better to choose one new project in the garden per year than five, if not one of those five end up being completed. It is preferable to have the students come out to the garden less frequently for a well-planned and well-staffed activity than to have them come out more frequently and not have any guarantee of a positive educational experience.
This article was originally written for World Food Day, October 24, 2014, and published by Barnraiser and It was updated June 2017.

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