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School gardens address hunger issues and promote healthy food

They also can foster connections with community members, from neighbors to experts.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When Gregory Wright decided to plant a garden in his backyard in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia, he wasn’t really sure what he was doing, he said.

“I didn’t plant any flowers around it,” Wright said. “I just planted the vegetables. And I found myself self-pollinating, because I didn’t plant any flowers to attract any pollinators, so I was literally taking cotton swabs and putting them on the stamen and the pistis of the flowers of the vegetables.”

But now, after two summers, his l four-by-four-foot plot produces endless bounty – from tomatoes and eggplant to conversations and relationships with his neighbors.

“There is a community connectivity that happens from gardening that I’ve experienced firsthand. There are people who I’ve never seen, I’ve been living in my place for about five years, and I’ve never seen certain people,” he said. “So it creates conversation. It breaks down barriers.”

Breaking down barriers and helping communities by addressing food issues has been Wright’s mission since graduating from Temple in 2011. After college, he worked at the Food Trust, which looks to solve issues of food insecurity and healthy food access in Philadelphia.

Now, Wright is one of the healthy schools coordinators for the mayor’s community schools program and has been working with faculty members at his three schools — Tilden and Gideon Elementaries, and South Philadelphia High School — to bring more green space, gardening, and food education to their students.

Building on a good idea

At Tilden, teachers were already responding to a desire from the community for more green space and access to healthy food. For the last three years, Cheryl Padgett, an autistic support teacher at Tilden, worked to build and maintain a handful of raised garden beds for her students.

“The garden has been a great way to facilitate understanding environmental science issues for my students in a very tangible, meaningful way,” Padgett said. “The beauty of it is that now it has expanded and it is being used beyond just [her students]. It’s school-wide and now becoming community-wide.”

Since August, the school’s garden has expanded to almost two-dozen beds, growing everything from kale and cabbage to strawberries and squash.

Cole Jadrosich, a Tilden reading and writing support teacher, now runs a gardening club as an afterschool student activity. Like Wright, he’s been learning along the way.

Wright said: “I feel like that’s one of the cool aspects of gardening – when the students see that they’re learning with the teacher, and sometimes they’re able to teach the teacher. That’s a cool reciprocal effect that can come out of it.”

Since the new beds were built and Tilden became one of the city’s first community schools, Padgett and Jadrosich have been able to secure a grant from the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and partner with Bartram’s Garden to help with garden maintenance, as well as tips and information. Padgett, Jadrosich, and Wright now have big plans for the garden, both for students and for the community at large.

“We want to set up a produce distribution network so students can connect with people in the neighborhood and people on their block to create a kind of enterprise for themselves by selling fresh produce to their neighbors and their peers,” Jadrosich said.

They also hope to host a student-run farmers’ market to teach students about business and entrepreneurship, as well as nutrition and hands-on science.

“It just gives us another opportunity to expand the curriculum outside the classroom,” said Jadrosich, adding that real-world applications of concepts can help kids learn a subject like math more effectively.

Wright agrees, arguing that students connect with the ability to see where their food comes from. “You’ll see a student, they’ll have a seed in their hand, and when you tell them it’s going to grow into a cucumber or an eggplant, they don’t believe it,” Wright said. “So when you actually see that end result, you get to understand that your hard work pays off. So it’s something that’s actually visual. And I feel like creating a sense of completion for a student is important. And they get to see their work unfold and manifest.”

Padgett and Jadrosich had started to expand the garden before Tilden became a community school, but Padgett says the support from Wright and the office of community schools has been “massively” helpful, mostly for connecting the school to local organizations that have shared resources and expertise.

Tackling food insecurity

Other community schools have also targeted food insecurity as a major concern for the neighborhoods they serve, but addressed the issue in different ways. For example, Gideon, another school that Wright works with, is set to become part of a pilot program with Philabundance that gives backpacks to every student each month that contain five pounds of fresh produce for the students’ families.

For some schools, fighting food insecurity by connecting students and their families directly to fresh produce, rather than through a school garden, makes sense. Gardens take maintenance, particularly over the summer, when students are not in school and when most traditional crops are ready to be harvested. While few schools would argue against more green space and less blacktop, most teachers and principals already feel like they are spread too thin.

Other schools throughout the city are also trying to focus on installing more green space and gardens. Nebinger Elementary worked with the Philadelphia Water Department a few years ago to install a rain garden, which provided green space and improved storm-water runoff systems. A grant from the American Heart Association helped the school install a vegetable garden. Once the gardens were constructed, the issue of maintaining them inevitably came up.

Ahn Brown, the principal at Nebinger, said, “I would say one of the biggest pitfalls is making sure that you have a system in place, particularly over the summer. Because, you know, all that work you do during the school year can go to the wayside if you have no one to maintain it. My teachers did that. So having a dedicated teacher that would be willing to put in the time and understanding, the full gamut of the work is important … but the issue is that teachers are pulled so many different ways that it could fall to the wayside.”

For Nebinger, that dedicated teacher is now Javier Dominguez, the lead science teacher. He has organized the maintenance and use of the garden and outdoor classroom and incorporates weeding and watering into his science and STEM classes. Each grade has a different vegetable bed in an elevated box and is in charge of weeding, watering, and picking the vegetables grown in their box.

But the school also has an outdoor classroom so that more teachers can use the outdoor space to supplement their lessons.

“I organize everything, so that way it’s just easier for the teachers to go down with their students and use the garden,” said Dominguez. “We try to promote a lot of instruction even outside, using what we have. Because a lot of city schools don’t have these kinds of things, and we’re lucky enough that we have a vegetable garden, we also have the rain garden, and now we also planted boxes around the trees around the school and we planted bulbs.”

The responsibility of maintaining the garden over the summer falls on the neighborhood group, Friends of Nebinger, which is made up of community members and aims to help fundraise and support the school.

Gail Tomassini, a member of the Friends of Nebinger who has been active in the schoolyard redesign project and the building and maintenance of the gardens, said that although these types of projects are meant to help support the students and the school, sometimes they can have unforeseen consequences.

“Nobody talked about ‘now what’? Who is going to take care of it? What are we going to do with the food? How does this fit into a teacher’s day?” said Tomassini of the first few years of the vegetable garden.

She said the seeds originally given by the American Heart Association grant ended up being for vegetables that were almost exclusively harvested in the summer.

“It was mostly the community trying to keep it alive [over the summer]” said Tomassini.

Now, she said, there is more of a system in place and they are more aware of which plants are harvested in the early spring and early fall.

Focus on sustainability

For schools like Tilden that are looking to expand school gardens, community support and a plan for upkeep are important for the project’s sustainability. Luckily for the community schools, extra support from the mayor’s office is helping with community engagement and support in more ways than just school gardening and healthy food access.

“We haven’t gotten community members fully involved yet because we really just started and finished building more beds at the end of September, but we are really looking forward to this upcoming spring so we can connect more with the community and provide resources and benefits that are not really allocated to this neighborhood,” said Jadrosich.

He said that becoming a community school and having a healthy schools coordinator as an additional resource has already made a difference.

“We have been able to connect with many other organizations in Philadelphia, and they have really been great about lending a hand and giving us resources and information about the best way to expand our garden and further integrate it into our school,” Jadrosich said.

And for Wright, supporting the garden is a perfect metaphor for the larger goal of community schools. This is what his job is all about.

“The role of the healthy school coordinator – and really of this whole project – is fighting poverty,” he said. “How can we address poverty going forward? If a kid is malnourished, it’s going to be difficult for them to learn. “It’s a group approach. It cannot be done with one person. It has to be a community event.”

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