School Gardens, or, How to Teach the Next Generation to Save Themselves

Posted on February 2, 2012


Obesity affects upwards of 40% of the American population. Almost 70% of us are  considered to be overweight. 70%! If you live in the city, the next time you are on the subway, choose ten people, and glance (because staring is rude), and see if this stat holds true. You’ll see lots of double chins staring down at their cell phones, sipping their low-fat lattes, and likely, plenty of chubby people.

Okay, so what’s the big deal about being a little big? I mean, we live here to enjoy ourselves, and we love food, in huge portions. If for nothing else, from a capitalistic perspective, it is costing us billions upon billions of dollars. Every years that number creeps ever higher, so that spending $100,000,000,000 to treat Type II diabetes, hypertension, and the related cardiovascular diseases associated with diabetes is becoming a norm.

It is a trend that we can reverse if we so choose. Not to say that it will be an easy reversal, with the prevalence of fast food in urban areas, and the unbelievable amount of corn in just about everything we eat from restaurants and corner stores (soda, chips, granola bars, cereal, cheese, hamburgers, chicken nuggets -I can’ think of much more, I don’t stock my cupboards with too much these days, but the list goes on).

It’s also not like we really have the government support on our side. Yes, Michelle Obama has done a nice job as a champion for school food policy ( and edible gardens. Her husband, on the other hand, continues to allow agri-business to boom with continual subsidies for corn and soy. Why wouldn’t a farmer feed their cows cornmeal, even though it is not a natural diet, if the government is going to pay for it?

So what to do?  We can stand and point fingers at corporate takeover of America, and all the evils inherent when monopolies exist. We can do our best to shop organic  (though that label is really just a new marketing scheme, organic doesn’t really mean all that much, so be wary). We can go to local markets. Yes, this sounds better. We can support Community Supported Agriculture farms. Getting warmer.

We can teach the next generation of eaters, consumers, and trend setters for our society that good, real food is essential.

Roots Garden in Oakland, Kale grown by 6th graders

How do we do that? We start young. Kindergarten. We hand seeds to students, point them to the soil, and help them sow.  We integrate local food into our lunches (this is starting to happen in progressive schools). We explicitly teach nutrition. And not just the USDA recommended daily servings chart, or the old school food pyramid. We teach kids what real food looks like, tastes like, smells like. How fresh a snap pea off the vine can taste. It doesn’t just happen once though. Every year, I would argue all the way up to 12th grade, we reinforce healthy habits. School is supposed to be an institution that serves to educate. Yes, we are falling behind  countries like China in our standardized tests. Yes, literacy levels and basic math skills are atrocious. Naysayers against school gardens will argue that we need every minute for students to be in their seats, practicing times tables, reading their phonics books. Nay.

Students should be actively learning. They should be calculating costs for their new garden beds – how many feet of lumber they need to order, how much 8 yards of soil costs if it is $24 a yard, charting plant growth on graphs, and on and on and on. There are countless ways to weave real world learning into the classroom, and to redefine the classroom as a space that isn’t four walls with pictures of old people and maps.

It is radical I guess. It would mean training teachers in new ways. There are some fledgling programs out there to do this, and hundreds of champion teachers and admins who are already seeing the future, but so many of our failing schools might want to try out an alternative.

The results might be better attention, less behavior issues, a safer and more inviting place to learn, and increased test scores. Beyond the classrooms, we’ll have less health related problems from obesity. We’ll teach some resiliency skills to our young ones who have seen the short end of the stick for decades. We’ll actively be using our power to say sorry to Monsanto, Tyson, and the heaps of corporate businesses that produce food, we know how to grow our own corn. All of this has the potential to shift the shape of our communities. Imagine the kid in the hoodie on the street corner not slinging dope, but saying, “Hey little kid, I got some heirloom tomato seeds. Heirloom man, you want some?”

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