A Gardener’s Journal
August 14, 2012
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From Edible Columbus magazine, Issue No. 7, Fall 2011
Show and Till
Written by Jan O’Daniel
Photos by Catherine Murray, photokitchen.net

They place yellow calendula petals on their tongues. Then, with mouths open and tongues wagging, they carefully and deliberately chew and taste. Next, they vigorously rub the leaves of a lemon verbena plant, offering up citrus-infused hands almost prayer-like to anyone who will take a whiff. Finally, they push a small wheelbarrow of recently pulled weeds to the compost heap, “mixing the green with the brown” as Farmer Paul Etheridge directs.

They are the children of the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities Early Childhood Education & Family Center (ECEFC) Partnership. Farmer Paul is their in-the-garden teacher. And this is their edible schoolyard.

These 3-, 4- and 5-years-olds are rife with wonder and the edible schoolyard is fodder for their curiosity. Like all schoolyards, it is certainly a place to play. But at ECEFC, it’s also a place to learn.

“Actually, it’s child labor in action,” says Farmer Paul with a laugh. “We let the kids do as much as possible during the growing season. Sometimes one group of kids will uproot everything the other group just planted. But it’s OK. It’s about the learning experience.”

Yes, the learning experience—the core mission of the edible schoolyard.

Started some 16 years ago in Berkeley, California, as an outreach program of Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse Foundation, there are now thousands of edible schoolyards across the country, including Columbus. The premise of an edible schoolyard is to involve students in gardening experiences that awaken their senses and nurture their appreciation for nourishment, community and stewardship of the land.

By that measure, Columbus’ edible schoolyards are great examples of what is possible in Central Ohio.

Take ECEFC, for example. Each year for the past nine years, the school’s 700 students have made their way into and around the garden.

“It’s a sensory experience for our students, who are a diverse group of children with varying interests and abilities,” says Rebecca Love, ECEFC’s director. “For the younger children out playing, it’s integrated with their motor experiences; for our other students, it’s integrated into their life, physical and social science studies.”

The field-to-table experiences facilitated by Farmer Paul and his cohort, Farmer Molly Helt, help connect the outdoors with the classroom in meaningful ways. The children get ample time in the school’s gardens to explore, plant, water, compost, harvest, save seeds and taste.

ECEFC’s expansive outdoor learning experience began in 2002 when Noreen Warnock, co-founder and director of public policy and community relations for Local Matters, met Mattie James the executive director and CEO of the Child Development Council of Franklin County (CDCFC Head Start), while the two served together on jury duty.

Warnock and James started talking about the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” when it came to access to healthful, local, sustainable food. As they discussed solutions, Noreen suggested that CDCFC Head Start collaborate with others in the community who were also concerned about local food issues, and apply for a USDA Community Food Security Grant.

They were awarded the grant, which included funds to start gardens at CDCFC Head Start Centers, including the center located at ECEFC. So James asked Warnock to propose the idea of a schoolyard garden to Love, who was in the midst of forming a cooperative partnership with CDCFC Head Start and others.

“We were just building this new partnership,” Love explains, “so I said ‘No. I’m not interested.’ Then I started thinking about [the novel and movie] Field of Dreams—you know, ‘If you build it they will come’—and within an hour, I decided I should at least listen to what Noreen had to say.”

And Love was glad she did.

With funding from the grant, Local Matters launched the Greater Columbus Foodshed Project, which helped create 20 community gardens for CDCFC Head Start families, including the small project at ECEFC known as the Circle Garden. So named for its shape, the Circle Garden engages ECEFC’s students in growing, picking and enjoying fresh produce such as tomatoes, peppers and lettuce.

It was so successful that Warnock and Love began wondering what could happen if they expanded the food garden into a bigger outdoor learning experience.

ECEFC brought in Jean Gordon of Moody-Nolan Inc., and Warnock connected ECEFC with Susan Weber of Integrity Sustainable Planning and Design. Together they imagined and developed a plan for an outdoor leaning environment, which included a larger vegetable garden than the Circle Garden.

Weber helped make the project operational, ensuring that what was implemented would be linked not only to students, but also to staff, faculty, parents and the local community.

“The idea of an edible schoolyard is so much bigger than what plants to plant or how it works with the curriculum,” says Weber. “We already know that when kids are engaged in growing, they’re more open to tasting a diversity of fresh vegetables. We understand that this offers a more natural way of learning.”

Warnock agrees.

“When we start educating through gardening at an early age,” she says, “the kids learn where food comes from; what healthful, fresh food is; and all about our ecosystem. It’s a way of teaching them about healthful practices and well-being that can affect their whole lives.”

ECEFC offers students a sustainable learning lab, giving them hands-on botany and biology lessons—even before they know what botany and biology are.

“Who wants to try a flower that tastes like breakfast?” asks Farmer Paul as the children rush to sample the sweet sausage overtones of sage and learn about the herbaceous perennial.

As the children pluck petals off daylilies and sample their sweet essence, Farmer Paul incorporates a little environmental respect into his lesson by instructing the students to say, “Thank you, plant.”

Across town at Brookside Elementary in Worthington, Principal Fritz Monroe has been doing something similar with the Brookside Community Vegetable Garden and Schoolyard Enhanced Learning Program.

In 2007, using a seed grant from Local Matters and enlisting in the help of Weber as project manager, Amy Dutt of Urban Wild Ltd. as landscape designer, and countless teachers, students, staff, neighbors and contractors as laborers, Brookside created a sustainable vegetable garden. Today the garden, which launched in the spring of 2008 just six short months after conception, reaches and impacts both Brookside students and the local community.

“Our edible schoolyard gets the students outside,” says Monroe, “and gives them what author and educator Herb Broda calls ‘a change of pace and place.’ It also gives them a sense of stewardship for the earth. Plus, we use it to support local families. For example, in the fall most of our yield goes to Smoky Row Brethren Church’s food pantry.”

The students also get the chance to eat some of the fruits of their labor since Brookside incorporates fresh garden produce into its lunch menu with special events such as Spring Salad Day and Potato Day.

Learning. Engagement. Nutrition. These are the ideal harvest of the edible schoolyard.

“We view school gardens and edible schoolyards as community gardens that happen to be on school property,” says Julia Hansel, education manager at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. “With our Growing to Green program, we’ve participated in around 20 gardens on school properties in Central Ohio. I think we’re in the game or ahead of the curve when it comes to this kind of work.”

Indeed, says Warnock.

“There are gardens all over the city,” she says, citing the Columbus Community Gardening Map on the Fresh Connect section of Local Matters’ website. “In fact, the editor of Organic Gardening magazine says we’re a ‘hidden gem’ that’s doing more on developing a local food system than many cities around the country. In Columbus, local food and growing more food through gardens is not a trend, it’s a movement.”

Still, there are barriers to creating an edible schoolyard.

“You don’t need a lot of money to start one, but you do need some,” says Warnock. “School and community gardens are a bigger part of transforming our local food system. We just need a little, literally, seed money and we need people who are willing to pass their expertise along to many who want to learn to grow food.”

Hansel agrees.

“Pulling the resources together and making this work happen is still a challenge,” she says. “It’s important to get parents, kids and school staff involved in making a school garden happen. Gardens can come in all shapes and forms, from a container garden in a window to a plot in the ground—all equally valuable in educating children.”

What’s most important, the experts agree, is to assess the needs and dreams of the school and create a garden that’s manageable with the resources available, whether through fundraising, donations or grant money.
Regardless of form, these advocates agree that the function of a schoolyard garden is this: setting the stage for a lifetime of success with healthy habits, healthy bodies, eco-consciousness and life skills management.
How to Successfully Build an Edible Schoolyard
by Susan Weber, principal at Integrity Sustainable Planning and Design

An edible schoolyard can change the way kids learn. Creating a space that becomes a “yes” and a “do” instead of a “no” and a “don’t” require these key elements:

Partner with the principal.
An edible schoolyard project needs approval on an ongoing basis in many areas, including funding requests, participation in grants, inclusion of community members as resources and volunteers, and involvement and buy-in of staff members. In order for that to happen, the school principal must fully understand the parameters of the project and, more importantly, be willing to support it.

Practice deep engagement during planning.
Employ a design and planning process model that includes diverse engagement strategies for both adults and children. Request participation from teachers and staff, especially from areas like cafeteria and maintenance. Employees in these departments will appreciate being asked and by including them in the process you’ll likely garner their support for the project. Invite neighbors and strategic community members, too, as they often bring great resources and enthusiasm to the table. And, it should go without saying, the children and their parents need to be included as well.

Familiarize yourself with sustainable practices.
Every edible schoolyard project should model—and teach—safe, healthy practices at every level. Make environmentally responsible construction, installation, growing and maintenance practices a requirement of your edible schoolyard project.

Have fun.
The most important resource you can bring to an edible schoolyard project is an active sense of joyful discovery. A fun-filled project always attracts great partners and resources.

Susan Weber
Integrity Sustainable Planning and Design

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