School Gardens Foster Meaningful Relationships with Food

article image
Photo courtesy Slow Food
The Seed to Table project helps school gardens and student-managed farmer's markets in the Denver area.

Slow Food Almanac (Slow Food, 2013) argues that something valuable has been lost in this era of fast food and instant gratification. Humanity needs the pleasure meals made with love and attention, and from locally grown ingredients. A global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries around the world, Slow Food International promotes the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment. This excerpt focuses on the slow food movement in Denver, Colorado, and a project to help cultivate school gardens.

Cultivating Community with School Gardens

In just over a decade, Slow Food Denver has grown its Seed to Table project to involve 50 school gardens as well as a canteen program and student-run farmers’ markets. Thanks to dedicated members and strong community support, the project is creating opportunities for young people to develop a meaningful relationship with food through hands-on experience in school gardens and related educational activities, community interaction and the pleasures of the table. The Denver School Garden Coalition was formed together with Denver Urban Gardens, Learning Landscapes and Denver Public Schools to support the program.

A Victory for Lowry

One the schools to join Seed to Table is Lowry Elementary School, a new school on land that was previously an air base: an exposed site with little vegetation. Lowry belongs to a newly developed community with a high level of socio-economic variation. The neighborhood includes two transitional housing complexes and around 40 percent of the student body qualifies for federal free or reduced-priced lunch.

Seven years later, with much support from local parents and teachers, the school has a not one, but several food gardens. The “Serenity” garden is made up of themed teaching areas, such as sensory experiences and bird/butterfly attracting plants; the “Victory” garden is a large vegetable garden; and the latest addition is an orchard with various fruit trees. Students propagate seedlings, make compost, host plant sales and harvest produce.

The gardens are also an important way to improve the eating habits and health of the children. In a direct way, part of the harvest is used in school meals. Denver Public Schools food service department agrees to pays market price for any produce that can be provided from the participating school gardens. Last year, 14 school gardens in Denver produced 1,123 pounds of produce and earned $1,000 for their gardens — all of which is invested back into the projects. In an indirect way, the gardens foster an appetite for fresh produce. “It’s wonderful to see how excited the students are to harvest vegetables in the garden — especially when they planted the seeds — and to know that ‘their’ zucchini will be served in the cafeteria that week,” says Lisa Emerson, Lowry’s garden leader. “It makes the kids much more likely to try, and to like the fresh vegetables. We’re connecting them to where food comes from, which will help students develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime.”

From Garden to Market

Lowry also organizes a Youth Farmers’ Market weekly during the Colorado harvest season, held on school grounds and operated by students. Any excess produce from the summer months goes towards the school’s Backpack Program, a meal support service developed by the school to offer support for students who don’t get enough to eat over the weekend. Each Friday volunteers create six meals and two snacks, pack them into the backpacks and deliver them to these students.

In the autumn of 2012, Lowry celebrated their garden and school’s success with a visit from Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education of the United States. On reflection, it was clear that a successful school garden program benefits enormously from having multiple partners at various levels: from the teachers and students, to families and community volunteers, funders, partner organizations and government departments. Slow Food Denver is certainly proud to be a key partner in this thriving network of outdoor classrooms that is bringing good food to all.

Interested in learning more about the slow food? Read Inside the Slow Food Movement.

Reprinted with permission from Slow Food Almanac edited by Silvia Ceriani and published by Slow Food International, 2013.  Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries around the world who are linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment.