Growing knowledge: School gardens take root in Atlanta 

In Ms. Wiggins' fifth-grade class at Cascade Elementary in Atlanta’s West End, it’s coming up on state testing time. The kids are weary and antsy, having spent the past few weeks enduring lessons on facts and figures to prepare for the tests that will determine, among other things, the school’s level of funding. But at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays, it’s time for a different kind of lesson. On this particular Tuesday, using veggies they’ve grown themselves in the school’s courtyard garden, the kids will be making soup.

All over Atlanta, schools are beginning to bring food into their schoolyards and classrooms in the form of edible gardens. These schools and the programs that support them hope to give kids a connection to healthy eating and food systems in a way that's radically more tangible than classroom lectures. 

Seeds of Nutrition is an arm of the Mendez Foundation, the nonprofit that helped plan, build and start Cascade's garden. The foundation also provides the Tuesday classes. Foundation employees Seth Freedman and Nichole Lupo wrap a lot into their their hourlong session with Ms. Wiggins’ students. Over the course of the class, Freedman and Lupo cover everything from why breakfast is so important and how plants survive cold weather to the proper way to wash vegetables and how to make a chopping block stay on the counter (borrowing from a recent science lesson on friction). Other topics covered include knife safety; seasonality; table manners; fractions and measuring; the correct way to cut carrots; the definition of a whole food; and parts of a plant. 

Some students go outside to dig up spring garlic from the garden, while others wash and cut veggies for the soup. In the simple acts of growing and cooking food, science, nutrition, math and social development all come together. Even vocab gets its turn when Lupo says to the class, “Notice how the room fills up with scents when we put the first ingredients into the pot? Many people call those ingredients aromatics. What word do you hear in the word ‘aromatic’?” Most of the students eagerly wave their hands. “Air?” a boy in a hoodie says. “And ‘matic’?” It’s a good guess, and next someone volunteers “aroma.”

“When we get these kids out into the sunshine, it’s a break from the monotony of preparing for tests, from sitting in the classroom,” Lupo says. “So hopefully, they absorb more.”

The idea of school gardens has been around for years. Its most famous proponent is Alice Waters, chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Waters founded the Edible Schoolyard at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in 1995. She used to drive by the school on the way to her restaurant and see the signs of decay. “The school didn’t look so good,” she said at a speech I observed in 2002. “In fact, it almost looked abandoned.”

She’s not exaggerating. In 1995, while Waters and the school’s principal planned the Edible Schoolyard, I arrived in Oakland to work for AmeriCorps. I'd been assigned to MLK Middle School as a tutor. The school, surrounded by acres of blacktop, seemed to have no life, no green, just stretches of black and gray buildings. Over the following years, Waters and the school transformed one acre of land into an edible garden where students now grow and harvest food. The school’s unused cafeteria was also renovated. It's now a kitchen where students cook the foods they grow. Today, every student at MLK is involved with the program, growing, cooking and eating fresh food. From videos and articles I’ve seen about the program, the school's barely recognizable as the depressing place where I once worked. The Edible Schoolyard appears to have completely transformed MLK.

In that same 2002 speech, Waters repeatedly made the point that many children are no longer learning healthy and social eating habits at home. As such, she makes the argument that it’s now the public schools' place to teach those habits. Gym class has long been accepted as a publicly funded way to battle obesity and promote health, but food is in every way as fundamental as exercise. Why not promote healthy eating in schools, and do it in a way that goes way beyond food pyramid posters?

At Cascade Elementary, when the soup is served at the end of the class, a few kids scrunch their noses and shake their heads, but most of them gobble it down. For many of them, kale, spring garlic and white beans aren't things they’d develop a taste for anywhere else. Freedman and Lupo provide recipe sheets at the end of each lesson for students to take home and share.

Seeds of Nutrition currently runs programs in three schools. There are also other organizations and additional Atlanta schools starting gardens and bringing food into the classroom. Georgia Organics now has a full-time Farm to School coordinator, and stories of communities, farmers and schools coming together are becoming more common. Atlanta chefs, including Restaurant Eugene's Linton Hopkins and Repast's Joe Truex have become involved as well, promoting healthy eating at workshops and programs around the city.

East Atlanta's Burgess-Peterson Academy recently put in a school garden with help from Georgia Organics and neighborhood organizations. Community support centered around the East Atlanta Farmers Market and East Atlanta Community Association, as well as Trees Atlanta and the Ormewood Park church organization Holy Comforter’s Garden Ministry. On Saturday, Feb. 21, teachers, students, parents and community members came together to build the garden.

Robin Robbins, principal of Burgess-Peterson, says the garden works for her school on many levels. "The children are so excited," she says. "They say, 'Ms. Robbins, we're going to make you a a salad when our garden is done!' But I'm also excited to see their math and science scores go up. And to see them get outside. Children don't spend enough time outside, so this ties in to so many things — childhood obesity, learning, nutrition, science, they are all addressed within this one garden."

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