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Behind White House Garden Triumph, School Gardens Desperate for Help

February 8th, 2010 · 11 Comments · Posted in kids

Kids from Bancroft Elementary help in the White House garden

Kids from Bancroft Elementary help in the White House garden

Sarah Bernardi is one of the teachers from Bancroft Elementary School here in the District of Columbia whose students famously have been helping Michelle Obama grow the new White House vegetable garden. Despite all the interaction between school kids and the First Lady, however, Sarah says her own school garden and others like it depend too much on overtaxed teachers and volunteers and sorely need a lifeline. 

By Sarah Bernardi

As one of the teachers involved with Michelle Obama and the White House vegetable garden, I’ve been impressed with the sudden surge of public interest in the simple act of children planting seeds. At Bancroft Elementary School, where I work first and foremost as an art teacher, we know only too well the benefits children get from growing their own food. 

But I don’t think the public has any inkling how hard it is for teachers to maintain school gardens like the one we have at Bancroft. Despite all the hoopla over school gardening, the truth is teachers engage in these activities at risk of their jobs. You see, gardening is not part of the mandated school curriculum. We are supposed to be teaching reading and math. As much as we believe school gardens offer a multitude of teaching opportunities, schools do very little to support us. Principals and teachers have been bluntly told that they will lose their jobs if math and reading scores don’t improve. We desperately need help. We need someone to take charge of our school gardens. 

The kids you see in all the photos working with the First Lady in the White House garden, or making breakfast on the Today Show with the Obamas’ chef, Sam Kass, are fifth graders from my school. One of the reasons I chose to work at Bancroft two years ago was its garden. I had just moved back to the Washington area from South Carolina where I grew things pretty much all year round in my own yard. With visions of sunflowers and big tomato plants dancing in my head, I signed up for a community garden plot in D.C. But the waiting list was long. The idea of living without a patch of dirt to play in was hard to swallow. 

Then I arrived at Bancroft. The assistant principal toured me around the school. As we walked through the playground, she casually remarked, “Oh, and that’s the garden.”  We passed four herb boxes and nine raised beds overflowing with giant sunflowers, with tomato plants heavy with fruit, with squash spilling out over the sides. There was even corn! Truthfully, up until that point I had no idea schools had gardens. Planter boxes with a few basil plants, maybe, but nothing like this. 

As I soon discovered, these remarkable gardens were entirely the result of volunteer efforts. Ten years earlier, neighborhood resident Iris Rothman and her partner-in-crime, Nancy Huvendick, along with fifth grade teacher Toni Conklin, had begun acting on a shared vision of the school as a gardener’s Eden. Iris and Toni fought tooth and nail—cut through government red tape, jumped through every bureaucratic hoop–to make way for outside agencies such as the U.S. Botanical Garden to come in and construct the bones of our garden. Casey Trees, a non-profit groups, planted some 40 trees on school grounds. Last year, Iris had the brilliant idea to start a community garden on school property. We now have at least 30 people on the waiting list for plots. 

All of this was accomplished by concerned neighbors and teachers during their free hours. I don’t think the school system ever spent a dime. 

I met Iris when she approached me about collaborating on some art projects in the garden. Up to that point, I had assumed the garden was part of the daily school curriculum. It soon became clear that the work Iris was doing with the kids happened after school or in the summer. Iris worked hard to create opportunities for learning in the garden. But she did not have support from the school administration. They saw gardening as an extra-curricular activity. Disrupting the daily schedule was not an option. 

The garden at Bancroft Elementary evolved on its own over the years. It was never officially introduced to the school’s staff. No system was ever put in place to utilize it within the curriculum. When I arrived, I brought something new: A passion for gardens and a creative mind. Not only was my schedule more flexible than other teachers’, I did not have test scores to worry about. I was able to weave the garden into my own arts curriculum. And since I teach every student in the school, I was able to expose all of them to the joys of horticulture. 

Then came the day when some of my students helped Michelle Obama and Sam Kass break ground for the new kitchen garden at the White House. I returned to Bancroft and told the administration we needed to get our own school garden ready because the First Lady planned to visit. Then I called Iris. 

As in the past, there was no plan for spring planting at Bancroft. No money had been set aside for seeds. No teachers had garden projects in mind. I approached some local businesses and asked for donations of plants. Whole Foods gave us enough cabbage, broccoli and lettuce seedlings to fill five beds. But how would I get students to plant our garden beds during the school day? Each day Iris and I took art classes to the garden to plant seedlings. We weeded and mulched. By the time Michelle Obama strolled through our garden with a beaming Toni Conklin on her arm, things looked pretty lush. 

After that I began taking my art classes frequently to work in the garden– planting, harvesting, drawing. The White House dropped off tomato plants and we had fifth-graders show 3-year-olds how to plant them. We don’t have a kitchen at school so anytime we wanted to use the produce from the garden in a cooking lesson we had to convert the art room into a kitchen. When the lettuce was ready to eat we got an after-school group to harvest, wash and prepare it for salads. We set out salad toppings–dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, croutons–so kids could create three-dimensional, edible art projects. We picked herbs from the garden to make vinaigrette from scratch. The students were shocked to learn that salad dressing could be “made,” it did not have to be bought at a store. 

Last Spring I signed up for a workshop at the Washington Youth Garden– part of the National Arboretum–to learn how gardens can be used as teaching tools. My classmates were teachers who already had gardens, along with many others who wanted to start gardens at their own schools. Our common bond: a shared desire to get kids busy in the soil. For the first time, I saw just how many people are working hard to create a consistent, citywide school garden program. 

Then in the fall, a new D.C. Farm to School Network sponsored a “Local Flavor Week” to encourage school activities around the idea of fresh, local produce. My principal allowed me to put the rest of my schedule on hold to plan numerous events—cooking demonstrations, a trip to a farm, building cold frames. Most were linked to teaching standards. Every one of our 450 kids participated. 

Many things became clear after that week. The most important and surprising was that every teacher in my school was excited about students having garden experiences like the ones I organized. Most were even willing to sacrifice precious hours to help. I also learned that there are so many dynamic people eager to work with kids on gardening, cooking and nutrition education. Finally, it became plainly evident that while it is possible to tap into this wealth of resources to build a school garden program, it is a FULL- TIME JOB. 

As I said, my new principal allowed me to put everything on hold for Local Flavor Week because she believed in the importance of highlighting these experiences for the students and agreed that all 450 kids should participate. She even paid for one of the buses because the school lacked the funding. We are lucky: Our administration supports our gardening efforts. Many schools are not so fortunate. But even with this unconditional support, the garden program is still a patchwork of volunteer efforts that needs a dedicated individual to transform it into a streamlined resource that every teacher can use to engage her students.

During Local Flavor Week, I still had to teach my full load of art classes even though there were 16 trips and in-school workshops scheduled. Everywhere I went I was actually jogging, not walking. I had to be in at least three places at once on more than one occasion. I had not asked any other staff members to help me coordinate this because none of them had the time. They had their kids all day long. So I was a one-woman show. And I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if every week could be like this week?” If we had a full-time garden coordinator, that is. 

I had so many teachers after that week thank me and tell me that anytime I want to set up something like that again they would love to participate. I wanted to say, “If I can do it, you can do it.” But the truth is they can’t.

It’s not that classroom teachers aren’t interested. They just have too much  on their plate. And without gardening experience, they just won’t use the school garden. 

For all her great work and effort, Iris Rothman lacks an inside connection to the school, involvement in the schedule, familiarity with the curriculum. She has no power to create or change the curriculum, to implement standards-based activities, train teachers. She even has a hard time convincing the administration to allow her to bring in others who could do all of these things. Fitting it into the schedule would mean more work for administrators who are already overloaded. 

“Healthy Schools’ legislation pending before the D.C. Council would require the city’s schools to create a garden program for the first time, to provide training, planning and technical assistance for existing gardens as well as new ones. The one thing clear to everyone involved in this legislation is that, more than anything, what school gardens need is someone to be in charge, someone to take on this job full-time. 

School gardens illuminate the connections between food, nutrition and our physical and mental well-being. They can change the lives of impressionable children. A resource this valuable should not have to depend on unpaid volunteers or teachers who fear for their jobs.

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  • trudyr

    I understand your plight, but please tell us who to contact to help. I would be interested in helping at a local school in my area – mid to upper Wisconsin Ave

  • Daphne

    I’ve been struggling to get a garden started at my kids’ school, but faced with insanely deep budget cuts it’s nearly impossible to get anyone to think outside of test scores. What can we do?

  • Dr Susan Rubin

    We need gardens like this in EVERY school across the country. Thanks to the hard work of teachers who understand the value of gardens and also many local volunteers, these gardens get going.

    Local, state and federal funding should be appropriated for these projects, they are a solid investment in our children’s Food IQ.

    Nutrition education as it stands with calorie counting and dogmatic food pyramid messaging is ineffective and uninspiring. We’re never going to be able to convince kids from an intellectual standpoint to eat more fruits and vegetables. By growing food, a more lasting and meaningful relationship with real food is nourished.

  • Aerangis

    It seems to me that a structured/standardized curriculum needs to be outlined that incorporates math, science, reading, etc., into the gardening experience. This could be adopted/ developed by the Department of Education and FLOTUS. And the project needs to be supported by school districts, administration, and parents.

  • Aerangis

    I believe that our k-8, Park Hill School, in Denver has a cooperative agreement with one of the Universities that pulls in Master’s degree students to assist with their garden. I imagine that there is an abundance of talented aspiring educators who would be interested in taking on a project like this here in DC. Let me know if you want information regarding their program. Tyler Elementary just started its “Outdoor Classroom” which does not have a garden. I think that it would great if we could incorporate it into the model. It seems obvious that the learning model includes physical activity and many opportunities to add meaningful teaching.

  • EACummings

    Sarah, I can’t tell you how much I admire your perseverance. BRAVO. As a former high-school English teacher, I fully agree with–and fathom–the challenges you outline, though I can understand if people not familiar with the inner-workings of a school would not.

    With this year’s reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, many citizens and groups are pushing for more plant-based foods to be provided to school children. A particular campaign, Healthy School Lunches, is advocating for non-dairy vegetarian meals to be provided as options on a daily basis. While change is slow, perhaps if this sort of option becomes readily available to schoolchildren, school systems and the government will finally recognize the resource that school gardens are.

  • Lola

    Great article Sarah! The fantastic news is that there are SO many great people with resources to teach gardening already in the city. We’ve got the curricula, the experience, and the creativity flowing from organizations such as Washington Youth Garden, Gilda Allen from DDOE, Common Good City Farm, UDC’s Sandy Farber, City Blossoms (gotta plug ourselves :)), and more. All of these resources can help to build a standards-based gardening/eco-literacy curriculum – many of them already have! When I look back to all of the people who inspired my own path into gardening education – Judy Tiger, Grace Manubay, Katie Rewhaldt, Barbara Percival, Jerry Smith, Iris Rothman and many more – I am filled with excitement as I know that D.C. is rich with the know-how and passion needed to make a city-wide schoolyard garden effort successful. Schools do need full time employees to help harness this wealth of resources and make it available to the teachers in a way that helps them achieve their own goals with their students. It may take awhile for DC higher-ups to make school gardens a priority, but in the meantime I know we (and all the friends I mentioned above) will keep planting, keep watering, and keep providing DC kids with fantastic opportunities to learn about their environment and themselves.

  • espringf

    If schools can hire football coaches, can’t they hire garden coaches?

  • kacie

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Sarah. I wholeheartedly agree with Lola’s comments above. There’s a lot of interest and enthusiasm surrounding gardening and healthy eating right now, but we need to make the most out of this potentially small window of opportunity to translate this all into tangible support. Sarah is right on to call for more staffing in this area. I work at the Washington Youth Garden and receive phone calls and emails practically weekly from teachers asking us for support. We work in Ward 5 schools, teaching in six classes for two months, and starting a school garden at each one of those schools. I’d love to be teaching in every school in the District, but unfortunately have not figured out how to clone myself yet. If DCPS and the City Council want to support school gardens and nutrition education, then they need to fund a person (s) to implement these programs.

  • Roberta Paolo

    As someone who founded a school garden program that serves more than 1,500 students each week and has done it full time since 2002, I agree with you 100% It is a full time job. The answer is not a state or national program. Every school has a different set of resources and challenges. Organizing efforts need to be kept local and in relatively small pods. As a result of all of the organizations that have come to us for guidence on how to start a program, Granny’s Garden School is launching the Schoolyard Nature Network to in Ohio.

  • Sid Raisch

    It is painful to hear the pain in this article. I am one of Roberta Paolo’s board members for Granny’s Garden School. Know that it is possible to have the permission of the school administration, the support of parents, the involvement of teachers, and the excitement of the kids. The Schoolyard Nature Network provides a way to learn why-to and how-to get a school garden project on solid and sustainable footing in your community.