Growing Education and Edibles

Manzo Elementary is showing how school gardens provide more than just produce.

September 12, 2013

FeaturesIssue 2: September/October 2013

On the west side of Tucson, in Barrio Hollywood, towering rainwater cisterns stand watch over a school where chickens cluck, tilapia splash, tortoises lumber, and a variety of edibles bloom—as do the minds of the students who tend to them. Billed as “The Pride of TUSD—The Greenest Elementary School on the Planet,” Manzo Elementary is leading the way in Tucson’s blossoming school garden program.

Call it Seed to Supper, Farm to Fork, or Plot to Pot, the intent behind children’s school gardens is to produce both edibles and education—and Tucson wins honors in that good-to-grow department. Named Best Green School 2012 by the U.S. Green Building Council, Manzo is the only K-5 public school in the United States to receive that honor in response to their environmental initiatives.

“I’ve always realized the uniqueness and relevance of our program,” says Principal Mark Alvarez, “but to be recognized nationally is truly mind-blowing.”

“We initially focused on what we called our biome, re-landscaping to get off city irrigation before we built the desert tortoise habitat and began to get cognizant about native edibles,” says school counselor and garden guru Moses Thompson. “About four years ago we made a serious shift to food production with more rainwater harvesting, a big in-ground vegetable garden, a chicken coop, then a greenhouse and its associated aquaponics by raising tilapia.”

“I learn how to grow seeds, plant according to the season, make compost, and take care of tilapia and chickens.”

Roman Talavera, a fifth grader at Manzo, has been working the school garden project since he was a kindergartner, following in the footsteps of two older sisters who were also active participants. “I learn how to grow seeds, plant according to the season, make compost, and take care of tilapia and chickens,” he says. “Feeding the chickens and collecting their eggs is my favorite thing.”

That kind of hands-in-the-dirt experience is not only therapeutic, but helps in the learning process. “We learn stuff like math and ecology while we’re doing this, like the fish tank where bacteria makes plant fertilizer and the roots clean the water. It’s a whole ecosystem,” says Roman.

The young gardener is so enthused about green growing that he’s brought the process home to a backyard garden of his own. “We planted sunflowers and squash and chiltepins [native wild chiles]. We started with one plant, dried the seeds up and replanted, and now we have 25 plants,” he says.

“We use the growing of produce, our chicken coop, our aquaponics, and our compost pile to integrate the ecology of each aspect into academic content,” says teacher Wes Oswald. “For example, when we work with kindergarten kids on the concept of 10, we give each child a carrot from the garden and have them count the stems. If they find seven stems, they need to use mathematics to figure out they still need three more to make the magic number.”

By integrating the hands-on school garden effort with standard classroom mathematics lessons, math skill test scores have taken a quantum leap.

“Manzo went from a low D last year—one of the lowest-performing schools in the state—to a high C and just a handful of points away from earning a B,” says Thompson. “It’s been incredible to watch our ecology program grow from a handful of students with shovels into a transformative force in the community.”

Although the Manzo school garden may be the blue ribbon winner, a number of other TUSD schools are growing veggie gardens, supported in part by a USDA Farm-to-School grant, led by Nick Henry, the Farm-to-Child Manager at the Community Food Bank (CFB) of Southern Arizona. They include Ochoa, Mission View, and CE Rose elementary schools; Drachman Primary, Davis Bilingual, Roskruge Bilingual, Safford Engineering/Technology, and Tully Elementary Accelerated magnet schools, and San Xavier Mission School.

“We help schools who want to get gardens started,” Henry says. Though, he says, “It’s important to highlight the fact that few communities are actually taking on the challenge of providing kids food that is grown locally, on site, in school gardens. Most Farm-to-School programs look to work with local larger-scale farmers, while our main focus at the Tucson Food Bank is successful gardening [in these schools].”

The $98,000 grant received in the fall of 2012 partners the CFB with TUSD to work on getting fresh, local food into schools in two basic ways—supporting school gardens and emphasizing small-scale agricultural handling practices to maximize food safety, and purchasing seasonal harvest foods from local producers to serve on a district level.
“Government programs like this are really important in jump-starting processes at the local level,” says Robert Ojeda, the vice president of the CFB’s Community Food Resource Center. “We have a great opportunity here to create awareness of choices to be made in our regional food systems where we grow more of our own. If you start a school garden that gets students, staff, and parents involved, it has an impact that goes beyond the school into the community—an initial investment that may be hard to measure, but one we know makes a tremendous impact.”

This impact extends beyond education. “Nearly 20 percent or 1.2 million people in Arizona were food insecure in 2011, not knowing where their next meal would come from,” says Ginny Hildebrand, who led the Arizona Association of Food Banks for nearly three decades and recently retired. “Children are disproportionally affected by food insecurity, where numbers rise to 25 percent—or 1 in 4 Arizona school kids under the age of 18—who struggle with poverty and hunger.” (In 2011, the Pima County food insecurity rate was 16.6 percent, a slight increase over the previous year).

“Historically, both food banks and school meals programs have worked to end hunger, so it’s a partnership that makes sense,” says the CFB’s Henry. “We also know that kids who have learned how to garden and are able to eat fresh food in a school cafeteria are more likely to live healthy, hunger-free lives. We’re working hard with TUSD and various regulatory agencies to ensure some of this school garden produce makes it onto the cafeteria menu. We already maintain a summer child nutrition program where we send kids home with a bag of food items—that includes produce—which is meant to help them get through the weekend.”

And, he says, “The basic idea of the Farm-to-School grant is to help schools grow food as a learning experience as well as for an actual source of nutrition. Over the past three years, the number of requests for assistance from schools wanting to start gardens and implement food-based curriculum modules has increased to where it’s almost more than we can handle, and we have to say ‘no’ sometimes because of the high demand. We’re implementing an evaluation program to determine actual impact, but generally speaking, kids involved in these programs have a more positive relationship with fruits and veggies,” says Henry.

Tom Harrison, an avid gardener and former TUSD parent, began cultivating that relationship years ago, before school gardens achieved today’s popularity. “I started when my own kids were in elementary school at Hudlow, informally teaching gardening topics, when school officials suggested I start a school garden for second graders. I’d rent a Roto-tiller and plow things up, then take in seeds and the kids would plant them in trays. When they germinated, they were transplanted and the timeline to harvest began.”

As his children moved on, so did the Harrisons’ amateur school garden project—on to Holliday and Steele Elementary schools. “Young kids have minds like sponges, so we’d take field trips to the Tucson Botanical Gardens and talk a lot about science, too, things like earth rotation and planting seasons. Compost heaps are alive with all kinds of stuff, so I’d bring buckets of my home garden compost to school, dump it on the table, and let the kids make discoveries. They all loved that—especially the boys,” says Harrison.

Compost plays a big part in the school garden at Manzo where 50 pounds of food remnants per day get converted into compost that goes to fertilize the growing gardens and the Sonoran Desert biome project.

Last year, National Geographic magazine wrote about those efforts, noting that Thompson’s project-based schoolyard not only helped students to grow produce, it helped in other ways by providing an environment of safety as well as learning. “Kids would come into my counseling office in crisis, and instead of trying to help in an office environment, I’d take a walk with the youngster and we’d go pull weeds or grab a watering can while we talked. Next thing I knew, those same kids wanted to go back out and water their plants,” he says.

Although Manzo Elementary is the trend-setter for TUSD schools with gardens, there are others both within—and outside of—the district that have also taken up the cause.

“The San Xavier Mission Elementary School is the only one outside TUSD included in our grant,” says Henry. “What they’re doing is really exciting because they’re working with San Xavier Cooperative farmers, Tohono O’odham natives, to bring culturally-appropriate foods inside the school.” In another project, he says, “Tohono O’odham Cooperative Association is bidding on a contract to supply food services to three schools in Sells.” TOCA’s Food Services Development Coordinator Stephanie Lip says, “We’re still in the beginning phase of developing Desert Rain Food Services. Right now we’re cultivating relationships with schools that serve Tohono O’odham students to see what food services needs there are and how we might support each other.”

Ochoa Elementary School is another TUSD example of growing minds while growing gardens. “This is so much more than a garden project. It’s planting seeds, but it’s also planting ideas,” says Paula McPheeters, the recently-retired Parent and Child Education (PACE) preschool teacher at Ochoa.

To her, the garden fits in perfectly with a commitment to providing authentic, purposeful learning that is transformational for children, families, teachers, and interns, one that serves to prove the point hanging on her wall: “Education is not a preparation for life; it’s life itself.”

Many schools growing gardens have a significant population of students that qualify for free or reduced lunches—98 percent at Ochoa, for example, and 93 percent at Manzo. According to the school’s website, “The Ochoa garden not only gives families access to organic vegetables, it allows them to share their bounty with the less fortunate as children regularly donate part of their produce harvest to the Casa Maria soup kitchen. They grow the vegetables, make soup, and share it with others who are hungry.”

The schools that maintain gardens look for creative outlets for the products they raise. “We do a farmer’s market, and that’s where the bulk of our revenue comes from to pay for new seeds and organic chicken feed,” says Manzo’s Thompson. “What we grow, we sell, so we’re self-sustaining. Right now we’ve got a good balance between production and sales. I’d love to be able to run a seasonal salad bar, but our food production is nowhere near what it would take to run a daily homegrown entrée for 300 kids.”

But there is enough for an occasional treat like the salad and juicing parties used as attendance incentives. “The classroom that has the best attendance over a certain period gets to visit the garden, harvest their own salads, and bring them back to the classroom where we provide the dressing and a commercial juicer for healthy garden-based beverages,” says Thompson.

Another TUSD school garden in its first year is at John B. Wright Elementary. Principal Maria Marin has high hopes as she looks over the four-month-old garden of tomatoes, corn, and basil. She foresees that this fall, JBW students will not only be snacking on what they grow, “but analyzing plant leaves under a microscope, because knowledge is empowering.”

At St. Michael’s Day School on the city’s eastside, teacher Susan Crane says, “Growing anything in Arizona soil is tough, but we in the Science Lab love a challenge, so our fifth graders planted a stir fry garden—peppers, onions, broccoli, bok choy. It’s amazing to see the level of engagement involved when children have plants to care for.”

Again proving the adage that it takes a village to raise a child, help for TUSD’s school gardens has come in many forms and from many quarters. Vendors like Desert Survivors have contributed starter seedlings. Others have offered time and talent to assemble donated infrastructure. The University of Arizona Community and School Garden Program provides both time and talent, or as UA professor Sallie Marston, co-founder of the garden internship, says, “What we have is labor, both mental and physical.”

“Our primary purpose is as a support mechanism,” says Marston. “Over the last several years our participation has grown from one person to over 50.” In 2012, UA interns logged nearly 4,000 total hours at eleven partner schools that work within the purview of the Community Food Bank. “School gardens are powerful, innovative educational tools where children get physically involved in ways that teach them all kinds of stuff about soil, water, hydrological cycles, pest control, intermixing plant varieties—you name it. It’s a two-way experience: Our students learn a lot and Tucson teachers get the support they need to have a student garden. Everyone gets something out of it,” says Marston. ✜

Lee Allen is a long-time backyard Tucson gardener who studies the secrets of success by watching kids plant school gardens.

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