School Gardens: Sprouting the Seeds of Change

October 05, 2016
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Garden art at Woodside Elementary School (courtesy of WES), and digging in the dirt, Collective Roots (courtesy of CR)

By Susan Ditz

Digging in the dirt and planting seeds in the schoolyard have been strong educational tools in the United States for over a century. In our super-high-tech global economy with fast-food restaurants on every corner literally feeding a national obesity epidemic, garden-based learning has never been more essential to our future as a planet.

From coast to coast, research shows that students who participate in school garden projects discover how good fresh food tastes (and share that enthusiasm with their families). They are making healthier food choices, becoming more physically active, losing weight and learning teamwork, cooperation, patience and focus, while developing a strong connection to nature and increasing academic achievement.

There are dozens of outstanding garden-based programs throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties and they each deserve a round of applause, especially for the volunteers who provide critical grassroots support. Here is a sampling from several school districts.

“Kids spend so much time in front of a computer or TV, these gardens provide a resource to explore nature and understand where food actually comes from,” explains Kris Jensen, executive director at Collective Roots in East Palo Alto. The culturally rich communities of East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park make up the Ravenswood City School District, their focus area, which in the last century was something of an agrarian utopia with thriving egg production, small farms, as well as an extensive floral and nursery industry. Most had disappeared, until a new generation of budding farmers came along.

At nearly an acre, the flagship East Palo Alto Charter School garden features a fruit orchard with over 100 trees, a pond, greenhouse, outdoor kitchen, solar power, vermiculture and composting. Building gardens and developing the curriculum is a very time-intensive process, so Collective Roots contracts with schools to provide an array of classes and programs. More than 2,500 K–8 students at seven schools engage in get-your-hands-dirty lessons on sustainable agriculture and nature, nutrition, science, math and language arts.

“Gardens present opportunities for kids to be kids,” Jensen observes. “Once they get over the gross-out factor with things like worms and composting, they get really into it.”

To engage as many students as possible, the small nonprofit staff also brings their Fresh Fest program to youth organizations and after-school clubs as well as classrooms. Activities may include learning to cook using produce they’ve grown, grinding wheat berries into flour and drawing the parts of a seed to discover the difference between unprocessed, minimally processed and highly processed foods or demonstrating the impact of calories burned and calories used with a student-powered blender that mixes a smoothie. They have also held farmers markets for school families.

“Last year we did an Iron Chef competition with fifth graders,” he says. “And we try to connect to the agricultural history [of the community] and talk about the farming knowledge that people from other countries have brought with them.”

Coastside Collaboration

While the Cabrillo School District is located in the fertile agricultural area of the San Mateo County coast, community and educational leaders felt there was a need for students to have real hands-on exposure to science-based curriculum that encouraged much greater connection with their health, the planet and their community. In 2006, the Health, Environment, Agriculture, Learning (HEAL) Project launched and today there are gardens at Hatch and Farallon elementary schools as well as a farm that serves students from all over the county.

The value, according to school farm director Chris Rizkalla Beetley-Hagler, is that “most kids are not visual or auditory learners; they are more kinesthetic and need to be fully involved.” The garden provides broad alternatives for different learning styles. “Students will flourish in the garden where they can prove they are bright and capable,” he says.

Classes for second and third graders each week might have them observing harmful and beneficial insects or other lessons that connect them to the growing cycle. Food grown in the garden may also become the source of math exercise measuring ingredients to go into a soup everyone gets to help prepare.

“Students will be more likely to try something new if they grew it,” he says. So twice a month they will harvest and bring home what they’ve grown to share with their families.

Fourth and fifth grade students build skills tied to academics by joining the weekly Garden Club. They may discover the complexities of economics while determining unit pricing for a campus garden sale or learn the steps required to get certified to sell produce at the Coastside Farmers Market.

Education takes place on the playing field too. “We also do a weekly noon recess sports program that incorporates fitness,” Beetley-Hagler explains. “At the same time we are encouraging fair play and working cooperatively.”

The San Mateo County Health Department has underwritten a program on the HEAL farm that allows students from districts outside Cabrillo to come and learn first-hand about growing and eating healthy food. They arrive in the fall to plant everything from squash to fava beans, tomatillos, potatoes, sunchokes, berries, garlic, onions, beets, kale, chard, carrots, peas, radishes and cauliflower, and then return in the spring to harvest. Some of the seedlings are grown in greenhouses at Half Moon Bay High School.

“This really helps students recognize what food is and what it takes to grow it,” he explains. And the environmental component is invaluable. “The next generation needs to make the changes so our society is sustainable.”

Next-Generation Farmers

Sunnyvale was once a sea of prune, cherry and apricot orchards, which gave way to the land needs of the technology boom starting in the 1960s. But Full Circle Farm has been bringing back some of that agricultural tradition since 2007, when the founders of Sustainable Community Gardens leased 11 acres behind the Peterson Middle School from the Santa Clara Unified School District.

Teacher and naturalist Mark Batchelor is the education director at Full Circle Farm and calls being part of a complete growing cycle in a school garden a “rite of passage.” Working in the garden is “therapeutic and emotionally grounding,” he observes. “It gives kids a real sense of achievement and self reliance.”

Students are on the sprawling farm twice a week—fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade science classes, and classes tailored for special needs students as well. They all have an opportunity to get their hands in the soil, learn about the inputs and outputs of keeping chickens, how to make nutritious snacks like kale chips or how to explain biomass. Working with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the Silicon Valley Health Corps, Batchelor says there is a huge push to teach students how they can prevent diseases such as diabetes and obesity by eating a healthy diet and exercising.

Making the connection to where food comes from and empowering students to see how they can make a difference are guiding principals both in the garden and the classroom. “A lot of kids have never seen a carrot in the ground,” he notes. “There are a lot of cultural, social and economic obstacles, but we are changing perceptions about food. And if we want students to eat well, it’s important that we get their  parents’ hands in the dirt too.” So they do, as much as possible.

Garden Tradition

“I have kids that just love raw broccoli,” says Brian Myrtetus, a second-grade teacher at Woodside Elementary School. An impressive feat with picky 7-year-olds. But he’s sure it is due to the time they devote to digging for worms, identifying edible parts of plants, keeping an eye on the watering and otherwise spending as much time as they can tending the school garden.

Bolting lettuce last fall provided a great lesson in life cycles and never letting anything go to waste. Once the plants had flowered, he showed them how to collect the seeds that could be used to plant a new crop. “Until kids have that real life experience, with what goes into producing food, they don’t make the connection,” he says.

The gardens have been a long tradition at Woodside Elementary. When the campus was rebuilt a few years ago, a team of parents stepped up to design and build something new—with moms hauling debris and one dad building 13 raised beds.  Myrtetus is quick to acknowledge the huge contribution parents and teachers make so the gardens can be such an integral part of the school.

Though they don’t produce enough to feed everyone daily, Myrtetus and the other teachers who use the garden as an extension of their classroom make sure the students have plenty to take home to experiment. He’s big on encouraging kids to try new things by making salads. His “Caprese Kabobs” featuring cherry tomatoes, basil leaves and Mozzarella cheese on a stick were a big hit. “We can make things simple so they can take them home.”

Myrtetus admits that when he started in the garden a few years ago, he liked his veggies but didn’t know a lot. “I’ve been learning right along with the kids,” he says enthusiastically. What he finds most gratifying is how engaged his students are: “When they work in the garden, they have a real sense of ownership.”

School gardens are clearly a powerful antidote to the disconnection technology has created between all of us and the natural world, no matter where we live. Planting seeds of knowledge and inspiration seems to be what it’s all about.

Having grown up in a California ranching family, Pescadero writer Susan Ditz gained personal perspective about the complexities of local food systems during more than a decade as an herb farmer. A former columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, she has also been a contributor to the Silicon Valley Business Journal and San Francisco Business Times.  Susan is currently the managing editor of Edible Silicon Valley.


School gardens aren’t a new idea in this country. Louise Klein Miller wrote Children’s Gardens for School and Home, a Manual of Cooperative Learning in 1904. At the time she said this kind of learning was a way to reconnect city children with their rural farming heritage—to help them become “producers as well as consumers.” By 1906 there were over 75,000 school gardens across the country.

During World War I, agriculture became a key component of public education with the launch of the School Garden Army program. It was viewed as a way of helping the country deal with rapid urbanization.

A new chapter began when California’s Garden in Every School Initiative launched in 1995. A year later Berkeley chef and Chez Panisse restaurant owner Alice Waters began work on her “Delicious Revolution,” the Edible Schoolyard Project, which has become a national model inspiring a whole movement.

The movement gained major new momentum in 2009 when First Lady Michelle Obama announced her Let’s Move campaign, a rallying call to action bringing childhood obesity and its causes into the public conversation.

At the same time, 10 regional garden-based education organizations joined with the Health Trust and AmeriCorps to create the Silicon Valley Health Corps. By supporting school and community gardens, their goal has been to encourage healthier eating and physical activity while building a sense of community and encouraging civic engagement for residents of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties.

Thanks to state and federal funding, grants from corporate foundations Annie’s Homegrown (Grants for Gardens), Whole Foods (Whole Kids Foundation), Subaru (Healthy Sprouts), Home Depot (Garden Club), Lowe’s (Outdoor Classroom Grants) and individual donors, school gardens are becoming easier to establish.

Here is a list of resources:






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