As a nutrition educator, Nancy O’Connor had worked with children for years. She invented many creative ways to talk about calories and nutrients, such as spooning 10 teaspoons of sugar into a pile to show them how much they were getting in one can of pop.
But she still wasn’t entirely getting through. What could she do, she wondered, to “crack the nut” of children’s disconnect with food? She found just the tool at a sustainable agriculture conference in Des Moines in 2010.
That year, she and the Community Mercantile Education Foundation, a sister organization to The Merc, 901 Iowa St., of which she is executive director, launched the first school garden at West Middle School, 2700 Harvard Road.
“Kids are bombarded with fast food on the landscape. They see it everywhere — it’s a very physical part of their reality,” she says. “Similarly, this garden is part of the landscape now. Since it’s on Crestline (Drive), it’s highly visible to kids, their parents and the community. Our success has been very visible.”
Thus began the school garden nonprofit program, “Growing Food, Growing Health,” which now has gardens at Hillcrest School, 1045 Hilltop Drive, and Sunset Hill School, 901 Schwarz Road, as well. Because the program is sponsored by The Merc, it promises to have lasting success, where a student–parent effort might falter when the students graduate.
Changing minds and habits requires patience and the long view, which is just what O’Connor says this unique business–school district partnership can provide.
Not only do students get to see the gardens in action, the program also provides five select students a job during the growing season, which is roughly April to November. Because it’s a real job — each student gardener makes $1,000 per season — the application process is rigorous.
To be considered, they have to volunteer at a spring work day. They each fill out an application and a self-evaluation of their skills related not only to gardening but also public speaking and their ability to work with others. They also need a teacher reference. Finally, they have to write an essay about why they want the job.
“After this careful screening, we’re left with a small group of smart, self-aware leaders,” says O’Connor. “They care about healthy eating and the environment. Ultimately, many of them have comfortably spoken at state agricultural conferences.”
Everything students learn, they learn by doing with the help of garden coordinator Lily Siebert, who doesn’t assume anything.
“We make sure we tell them, ‘Hey, you have to wash that lettuce’ before they bag it up,” Siebert says.
The student’s hours vary. In the summer they work early morning shifts, and after school in the fall. It depends on what their life looks like.
At the Sunset Hill site, Siebert also teaches a group of sixth-graders who have chosen gardening as an elective. In addition to Siebert and O’Connor, the program has hired local organic grower Dan Phelps to formalize the garden education program at Sunset Hill.
In just three growing seasons, the program has already produced a bountiful harvest. Of the approximately 5,600 pounds of food grown, 1,300 pounds have been prepared and served for lunch by West cafeteria staff, who, along with the principal, Myron Melton, have been very supportive of the project.
The student gardeners also run a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department for staff of the clinic, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and Visiting Nurses Association as part of a Workplace Wellness initiative. All of the proceeds are funneled back into the program, and leftovers are donated to Health Care Access.
“There’s been a really positive response,” says O’Connor. “When it was 105 degrees outside this summer, people could just walk into the lobby and purchase good healthy food rather than have to drive the farmers’ market or grocery store. Each week, someone would say something like, ‘I’ve never prepared beets, turnips, kohlrabi, kale,’ and we were there to educate. Not only do we have a generation of students who will never attend a school without a garden, we have adults introduced to healthy local produce. You can create policy to get people to eat, but unless you’re on the ground with them, talking to them, showing them real food, change won’t happen.”
The program can always use interested volunteers. “Growing Food, Growing Growers” is hosting a work day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at West Middle School. To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.