School gardens teach math, science and the delights of fresh fruit and vegetables
Cascades School fifth-graders Bella Burbank and Malachi Harris expose pumpkin plant roots before transplanting them in early May. “If you’re gardening, eventually you get to eat something,” Harris said. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The fifth-graders chattered excitedly as they headed to the Cascades School garden. The early May day was cloudy and a little cool, but the Lebanon students were thrilled to be outside.
They grabbed tools and gloves, asking questions about the day’s activities. They worked together in small groups, laughing as they planted a tree, cleared weeds or just dug holes. They made faces as they crumbled dirt between their fingers and found worms, daddy long legs and unidentified beetles.
“It’s disgusting in a good way,” Hailey Jefferson said.
These students love their garden classes for reasons ranging from hanging out with their friends to trying new foods to helping the environment. Cascades Principal Tami Volz loves the large school garden because it offers a life sciences lab as well as an opportunity to connect families with the school.
U.S. schools are increasingly embracing gardens to engage students with hands-on learning in a variety of subjects and to teach students about good nutrition and wellness. Gardens connect students to where their food comes from as well as providing fresh produce for school kitchens and area families.
Oregon school gardens have more than doubled since 2012, according to surveys by Rick Sherman, Oregon Department of Education Farm to School coordinator. Sherman has mapped 673 school gardens and fostered 12 regional hubs, with contacts for each one.
Garden-based education improves science, math and language arts learning, according to a review of education research. School gardens also improved student food behavior, according to a review of the scientific literature.
“I think folks disregard farm and garden-based education as a fad,” said Brooke Hieserich, Schoolyard Farms education director. “It turns out the benefits are really overwhelming.”
Schoolyard Farms partners with public K-12 schools to build farms on underused school property. Hieserich teaches “Leadership for Sustainability Education” at Portland State University. The class focuses on garden-based education.
Fifth-graders Ava Soderholm and Nicky Brett work together in the Cascades School garden. “It’s good for the environment,” Brett said. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Oregon Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill has supported school gardens since his days as Bethel School District’s superintendent. He said school gardens have three major purposes: education, food production and support for a sustainable Oregon.
“School gardens are tremendous connection points for students in so many areas,” he said. “There’s a lot of learning that comes to life in the garden.”
Oregon school garden programs range from pots in courtyards to a working farm.
Mallory Marquet teaches garden classes at Memorial Middle School in Greater Albany Public Schools. The school’s garden program started in 2012 with six raised beds and a two-week elective class. Now Marquet teaches four semester-long classes to a mixture of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
The school has five garden areas, including a milkweed garden behind the cafeteria to attract monarch butterflies. The gardening has spread onto the front lawn with a 32-foot by 108-foot plot. The gardens started with food plants and have expanded into flowers and native Oregon plants.
Marquet has leaned heavily on her husband, William Drabkin, a farmer and avid gardener. The school has also cobbled together a variety of grants, partnerships and community donations.
Marquet says one of the lessons with their gardens is that people can have a garden anywhere, with all different kinds of materials. For instance, to create raised beds in one garden, they simply dug a trench and planted in the mounded dirt, filling the trench with leaves.
Students are learning science, nutrition and biology while developing marketable skills, Marquet said.
Lebanon Community Schools has one of the oldest programs in Oregon.
“They’ve been doing farm-to-school programming since before farm-to-school programming was cool,” Sherman said.
The district started formalizing its garden program in 2008 but teachers had been using gardens long before that, said Nutrition Services Director Angie Gorman.
Lebanon has gardens at five elementary schools, serving more than 1,400 students, according to Gorman. The produce goes into school cafeterias as much as possible, although a lot of it gets sampled right in the garden, Gorman said.
“If they know they grew it, they are much more likely to eat it,” she said.
Students do much of the work during the school year. They plant in the spring, harvest in the fall and mulch and prepare the ground in the winter, according to Rick George, a retired teacher who works part time coordinating Lebanon’s garden program. George and a full-time assistant, Tammy Arnold, take care of the garden through the summer as well as doing some of the more mundane garden work.
“You have to diversify what you’re trying to teach kids,” he said. “You can’t just go weeding all the time.”
Students have a gardening class every two weeks. George said students make physical connections with their food by watching plants grow, taking care of them and seeing responses to different environments.
Lebanon has incorporated school gardens into its Coordinated Approach to Child Health programs. The implementation of CATCH at Linn County schools has correlated with a significant drop in area child obesity rates, according to JoAnn Miller, Samaritan Health Services community health promotion director.
Miller credits the garden programs for helping instill good eating habits.
“It is interesting to see the kids pick carrots, wipe the dirt off them and eat them right there,” she said.
Lebanon fifth-grader Hailee Busse used to think worms were creepy, but now she thinks they are cute. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Bethel School District has gardens connected to in-class programs at almost every school, but its farm is the program’s rock star.
Bethel transformed a 3-acre property into an organic farm, growing vegetables for school cafeterias and donations to food programs.
Students from next-door Kalapuya High School work on the farm weekly, and students from third to fifth grade visit the farm to help with tasks and learn about food production. The 3-year-old farm offers internships and camps, and the district is expanding its farm-related education programs.
Even in winter, the farm stays connected with schools. Students grow storage crops such as dry beans and milling corn that require post-harvest production, and plants and trees require pruning and other care. District cafeterias serve foods in winter that were processed in summer.
“This hands-on experience brings the classroom into a setting where students are engaged physically with the landscape,” said Kyle Ryan, Bethel farm manager. “Concepts become embodied in the work, which we’ve found generates a deeper understanding of key science and social lessons.”
School gardens can be labor intensive, especially in the summer months when students aren’t around to help. School garden experts say a successful program requires school board support and an on-site advocate.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers resources, funding and advice through its Farm to School program.
The 2017-19 Oregon budget included $4.5 million for the statewide Farm to School and School Garden grant program, which provides money for all schools to buy fresh produce and competitive grants for educational activities. Oregon has Farm to School programs in both the Agriculture and Education departments.
Garden advocacy groups, especially in larger metro areas, also offer expertise. Schools get help through businesses, churches and local volunteer organizations.
Gorman, of Lebanon, suggests starting slow.
“Start with something small outside your classroom window,” she said. “Then build on the program.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
- An example of coordinated school health in action
- Healthy Kids Learn Better
- The Chalkboard project - Open Books project
- Stepping up - The Oregon Business Plan
- Healthy Kids Learn Better toolkit
- Opinion polls and surveys
- Absolute necessity: the rise of local education foundations
- What is quality education and how much does it cost?
- The Quality Education Model
- NAEP report cards