Healthy Choices

School garden symposium sprouts green ideas for teachers, students

“A Garden in Every School” provides details about soil health at a compost and vermiculture workshop Saturday. The symposium, hosted by Soil Born Farms, aims to promote school gardening throughout the region.
“A Garden in Every School” provides details about soil health at a compost and vermiculture workshop Saturday. The symposium, hosted by Soil Born Farms, aims to promote school gardening throughout the region.

The sun blazed over The Met Sacramento High School’s courtyard Saturday as hundreds of farm-to-fork enthusiasts traversed between classrooms, grabbing a fresh apple or a packet of seeds along the way.

The group gathered for the first day of “A Garden in Every School” symposium, the first event of its kind in the Sacramento region. The educators, volunteers and community organizers were in attendance to hammer out a plan to get gardening into every Sacramento school by 2020.

The push for widespread school gardening – which has been shown to improve children’s eating habits, learning ability and overall health – took root more than 20 years ago, when state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin publicly proclaimed the need for hands-on access to produce across the state. Eastin kicked off the Saturday event along with Mayor Kevin Johnson.

There are five school gardens in Sacramento City Unified School District – one at a middle school and four at elementary schools – all of which were made possible by the Soil Born Farms Growing Together School Garden Initiative. Students at those schools visit their gardens and orchards throughout the week, both during and after the school day, to tend to crops while learning about everything from pollinators to composting, said Shannon Hardwicke of Soil Born Farms, a community agriculture hub in Rancho Cordova, who heads the initiative. Students eventually learn to harvest the crops, which they take home to their families or use as an ingredient in a cooking class.

Soil Born Farms is hosting the two-day event with help from the district, the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Magpie Cafe and a handful of nonprofits, health foundations and other sponsors to give school leaders the skills they’ll need to launch gardens on their campuses, Hardwicke said. She is designing a school garden curriculum to be presented to the school board later this year.

“Too many sites have felt too alone for too long, lacking curriculum or structure to their program,” she said weeks before the event. “School gardens are desiring guidance and support.”

More than 30 workshops over the weekend covered topics including garden design, crop planning, funding hurdles and healthy cooking. Guest presenters, including staff from Slow Food Sacramento, the UC Davis Children’s Garden, the Food Literacy Center and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spoke to nearly 200 attendees.

Nicole Costanzo, science teacher at Will C. Wood Middle School – one of the Soil Born garden sites – said the initial challenge in starting the garden was finding adequate time and resources. She had a passion for horticulture but needed extra help from parents and other teachers to keep the ball rolling.

Once a mound of dirt surrounded by salvaged wood, the garden has grown into a beautiful space and accompanying greenhouse that the kids actually enjoy, Costanzo said.

Now, her pint-sized gardeners are writing lessons for younger students and eating and cooking with all manner of produce. They recently had a moment of bewilderment when they learned that carrots are grown underground and pulled up from the dirt.

“They will eat anything that they grow,” Costanzo said. “Their main learning is just to try things … you can really learn just from gardening. We learn about history, we do cultural themes, we do journaling; it covers everything.”

In her Saturday keynote, Eastin recounted stories about children who had never seen a fruit or vegetable outside a store cooking nutritious meals for their families. She discussed the need for school gardens in impoverished communities, where poor eating has led to obesity and its associated physical maladies.

Event organizers offered a number of scholarship opportunities to ensure that representatives from low-income schools could attend the conference, Hardwicke said.

At Elder Creek Elementary School, a site identified by Sacramento County as located in a neighborhood with food insecurity, staff is working to get their gardens in full swing, said Donika Washington, who works with the START after-school program. She used the weekend gathering information from other gardeners to take to the kids, who she hopes will learn more about nutrition by working with their hands.

“A lot of people are impatient with food preparation and what they’re eating,” she said during a slow food workshop. “Patience is really important. So planting the garden, seeing their stuff come to life, chopping it, cleaning it, maintaining it – it just makes them more connected to what they’re eating.”

The hope is for the symposium to become an annual event that encourages collaboration between the many garden initiatives already occurring in the region, Hardwicke said.

“If we’re going to really jump off the idea that we’re really supposed to be the farm-to-fork capital, one way to get people involved in that movement is to bring it down to the school level,” she said.

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.