Education | Food

The ABCs of Gardening

A national nonprofit brings gardening and learning into Chicago schools

Ellie Mejía

On a rainy and unseasonably cold October day, Sam Koentopp and others from the national nonprofit organization The Kitchen Community (TKC) was leading the kickoff for the Woodlawn Charter School’s new Learning Garden. Every twenty-minute class began in the cafeteria, with a discussion about gardening and the importance of winter crops—crops that are planted not to be harvested, but to keep the soil filled with nutrients over the winter—and continued out in the garden.

TKC started in Colorado with the vision of impacting the food culture scale. Restaurateur and TKC cofounder Kimbal Musk came to the idea after observing how school gardens can improve children’s academic performance, emotional wellness, and access to healthy foods. By amplifying a standardized school garden model on a large scale, TKC seeks to bring effective school gardens to communities that particularly lack access to healthy foods. Colorado was only the beginning.

TKC began accepting applications from Chicago schools in 2012 as part of its push to start at least one hundred learning gardens in each of its ten regions. Koentopp, the Program Manager for TKC’s Chicago area, came on board in the fall of 2013 to support this initial push—fifty-four gardens were built in Chicago during that first fall.

“It was really intense,” Koentopp recalled. “We had three local TKC staff members doing the work, with lots of national members from Colorado flying out to Chicago, since we were building four to six learning gardens every week the first year. It was incredibly tiring, challenging work, but we were able to work with schools and the district to get to that number [one hundred gardens] really quickly.” That work has led to promising results—in fall 2016, six hundred pounds of food were harvested from thirty-two learning gardens in Chicago

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Courtesy of The Kitchen Community

Out in the rain, the Woodlawn Charter sixth graders ran around the raised, curvilinear garden boxes with seeds in their hands. The sixth graders were in charge of planting the winter wheat, while other classes had already planted garlic, peas, and butterhead lettuce. Once they had scattered the seeds, Koentopp told the class to push them down into the pungent mushroom compost soil. Once the chorus of “ew’s” subsided, students plunged their fingers and hands into the soil, or else used the pencils in their pockets to do so. On the way back out, students with mischievous smiles stuck out their dirt-covered hands for a handshake with Koentopp.

The gardens themselves are very uniform, consisting of 150 square feet of growing area, raised beds at a height easy for young students to use, and a curvilinear setup that encourages group work. “It’s not a huge amount of growing space compared to urban farms,” Koentopp said, “and the set-up does impact how teachers use the gardens. It’s usually limited to one class at a time, but some schools use a buddy system to pair older and younger students.” The buddy system allows teachers to fit two classes into the learning garden.

The gardens are specifically designed to serve as learning spaces, and are highly recognizable.

The gardens on the Woodlawn campus are adjacent to an existing community garden, which has typical wood garden beds with weeds and soil everywhere, in contrast to the pristine white and neatness of the learning garden. I recognized a learning garden in a Little Village elementary school from afar just by the format.

Koentopp went on to explain what happened after the hundred gardens had been built. “We immediately shifted our focus from aggressively building learning gardens to looking at those gardens and school communities, and building a program model to make sure teachers had all the tools and knowledge they needed to grow food with their students.” Since then, an additional forty-four learning gardens have been built in Chicago, and TKC has continued to develop their support model for schools. TKC has modified their program to provide more in-kind support to schools by providing seeds, plants, compost, and fertilizer.

TKC has also received support from local urban farms. An employee from Gotham Greens, a rooftop greenhouse farm in Pullman, donated some extra seeds and a tray of butterhead lettuce to be transplanted. The soil was made with mushroom compost from Urban Canopy, another urban farm in Chicago.

The primary role of TKC is to provide technical assistance to the schools. As Koentopp explained, “Our staff doesn’t do the growing in the gardens. We empower schools to make those choices.” One way they do so is by providing an annual growing plan, with suggestions about what plants are best suited for a school garden. These decisions vary by season, and are based on what will produce fresh, healthy food. The TKC staff then compares those choices against what seeds and plants they are receiving from their partner organizations, such as Jonny’s Selected Seeds. The growing plans were presented at three back-to-school workshops held on the North, South, and West Sides in late August.

Teacher involvement itself varies greatly from one school to another. Some schools have one champion teacher who is exceptionally passionate about the school garden and engages their students in the project. In other schools, there is a team of three to five teachers with a garden team or club. Teachers often recruit parents to help with the learning garden as well.

Katina Makris, a teacher at Laura Ward Elementary School in Garfield Park, has played multiple roles in her school’s learning garden. The learning garden at Laura Ward has been around for four or five years, and this year, Makris is taking the lead. Previously, Makris explained, another teacher was running the garden. It was hard at first to get teachers’ buy-in because a lot of teachers were scared, as Makris herself was, to take on something they didn’t know anything about. But the lessons provided by TKC, as well as the staff coming in and co-teaching some of the classes, have boosted confidence.

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By now, her whole school is involved. Students from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade participate, be it through cleaning up the space, harvesting produce, or planting seeds. “Every teacher is on board at our school,” Makris said, “and we have parents who want to work in the garden during the summer when we aren’t here.” For her, this is a good thing, especially when it comes to the actual garden work.

“I don’t know much about gardening, and I don’t have a green thumb—but slowly, with the professional development TKC has provided over the years, I’ve gotten better,” she said. “Now I have plants in my room that the kids take care of. We have classes out there [in the garden], and we have a kindergarten class that does read-alouds in the garden.”

The garden is more than just a classroom for the students. Each class has a schedule for garden work, and each grade covers different topics. Since Laura Ward is a STEM school, the teachers work to infuse STEM habits into the learning garden programming. Students watch educational videos and then discuss topics such as what the soil needs to remain healthy, what care plants require, and how to use vocabulary such as “crops” and harvesting.” In pre-kindergarten, for example, the students learn about the needs of a plant. By eighth grade, the students have advanced to a unit on sales, with an eye toward selling the produce at a local farmers market. Makris said that they haven’t produced enough to sell on that scale yet, but that they are heading there.

There is enough produce, though, to give the students an ample taste. Starr, a fourth grader who was in Makris’s class the previous year, eagerly recounted the process of planting radishes. “When I got involved with the garden, the first thing we started doing was making furrows, and putting strings between the furrows for the radishes. We started planting lettuce, radishes, spinach, and fruits. We went with the other third-grade teachers’ classrooms and made a whole salad in the end.” Looking forward to the next growing season, Starr said, “I’m really excited to plant radishes and collard greens and spinach. I basically want to plant everything in the garden, because either way it goes, I want to make my body healthy so other people can be healthy.”

Tasting the produce in the classroom is a common way schools use their harvest, according to Koentopp. There are five key modes of consumption, depending on each school’s needs and the size of their harvest. Some schools harvest the produce and then send it home with the students for families to cook at home. TKC provides take-home notes that teachers can adapt and send home with the students so that parents know how fresh the produce is and how it needs to be washed. There are also recipes on the TKC website. Simple in-classroom tastings of the kind Starr described are very popular as well. A third, similar way to use the produce is with a tasting tour in the garden, in which students and teachers clean and taste the produce. Tasting tours aren’t encouraged in Chicago, since eating the unprocessed produce is against CPS policy, but in general many schools have found the tasting tours to be a good way to excite students about food.

TKC also helps serve produce in the school cafeteria by coordinating with the cafeteria team, dining service management, and those in charge of the learning garden. “Generally not enough is grown to make a full dish,” Koentopp said, “but schools highlight those ingredients [from the garden] to excite students about eating healthy food and eating school meals.” The fifth and newest way that the learning garden harvests are consumed is through school farm stands, set up outside the school when the school day ends. In high schools, the focus is on selling the produce to students, while in elementary schools the parents are the target market. “It’s about sharing the bounty of that harvest with the entire community,” Koentopp explained. Some schools use the funds to support the garden, while others use the proceeds to pay high school students to take care of the garden during the summer.

The students at Woodlawn Charter will soon get a small taste of their brand new garden’s produce before the garden is put to rest for the winter. The young butterhead lettuce plants, donated to the school by Gotham Greens and transplanted earlier that day, will be ready for tasting soon. This was not lost on the sixth graders, who whispered excitedly about using their first greens for an organized school taco lunch.

In Chicago, TKC has carried out its partnership with CPS with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support. Koentopp said that TKC usually connects with the Mayor’s office a couple of times a quarter, in addition to monthly meetings with the Office of Health and Wellness to coordinate progress toward food and wellness goals in Chicago’s schools. That partnership also serves to make sure that TKC targets schools without many outside partnerships to ensure that resources are being delivered where they’re needed most. Eighty-four percent of students served by TKC are from low-income families, a statistic parallel to CPS’s overall population. Eighty-six percent of TKC partnered schools in CPS receive Title 1 funding.

For Katina Makris, the TKC learning garden at Laura Ward is all the more remarkable because of the neighborhood surrounding the school. Makris, who lives in the same neighborhood she teaches in, said that one difficulty in maintaining a long-term learning garden is the high turnover rate among students. Makris has thirty-five students this year; for fifteen of those students, this is their first year at Laura Ward.

“It feels like every year it’s a new school, because people are displaced,” she said. “They have to move somewhere else, which is really common in high-poverty areas. But you still have those core community members who have lived here for forty years and have seen everything.” The potential for engaging community members also contributes to what makes the learning garden so exciting for Makris, who plans to focus on parent involvement this year. Already, the learning garden programming has increased the community’s knowledge of healthy eating and access to healthy food.

“Last year we had an overabundance, so we sent it home with the kids,” Makris said. “Many of the kids live with different generations of people, so they were able to teach them and show them about our garden [and how healthy food] may not be readily available around you, but you can grow it in your house.”

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