On April 22nd, students gathered in the Tully school garden on a warm Saturday morning to celebrate Earth Day. Tully Elementary Magnet School is located on the west side of Tucson, and has a very diverse student body. Many students have spent the early parts of their life in other countries, including Jordan, Somalia, Nepal, Vietnam, Iraq, and Mexico, and speak a multitude of languages.The free Earth Day event attracted two dozen students from the neighborhood, their friends, siblings, and even a few parents. Earth Day provided an opportunity for students to relax, create, and work in the jungle-like space, fostering a sense of community and ownership over the garden. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on the year we had spent together in the garden.
I remembered the instances when the school garden was about much more than looking for bugs under rocks and observing the life cycle of vegetables. Students were empowered by the knowledge of how to grow their own vegetables. They were surprised at the flexibility of their taste buds when trying vegetables they had a hand in growing. They saw the results of the work they put in, and that work connected them intimately and positively to their school space.
In the garden, students learned the importance of respecting nature and how our actions affect the natural world. At the beginning of the year, Meri, Miley, Staci, and Kayla, energetic first graders, were far more interested in pulling plants up than they were in caring for them. During the last class, after a year of consistent exposure to the garden and its changes, these young ladies informed me that they were founding members of the “Plant Club”. This club meets whenever one of them sees a plant and they all gather to care for it. If you know any first graders, you know that this could really mean anything; but their classroom teacher and I were moved to see that their perspective on plants had shifted.
The garden provided an equalizing space where kids who struggled with reading, math, or sitting still had a place to excel. Two fourth grade boys were especially challenged by sitting in a desk all day, and their energy was hard to manage within the confines of an indoor classroom. These two ended up being some of the most dedicated members of the 21st Century Gardening after school program. Pairing physical and hands-on work with learning proved to be very effective for these two, as they showed up for every session and even for a few work days on weekends.
Finally, the garden was a conversation starter for students born outside the U.S. to share their hands-on experience and knowledge about growing food. Prishant grew up in Nepal and had a hard time containing his enthusiasm when garden time came around. Near the beginning of the year his English was limited and he had trouble understanding simple instructions. That was, until I poured a handful of carrot seeds into his hands. He lit up because for the first time in a while, he knew exactly what to do. Like a pro, he carefully sprinkled and spaced the seeds into a shallow furrow while his classmates proceeded to dig one deep hole and deposit their handful into it. Once English started to come more easily to him, Prishant would rattle off numerous “in Nepal we planted/grew…” stories each class. A few stories captured the imagination of his classmates who then eagerly shared stories of their own early experiences with agriculture from around the world. While this class thought of me as the teacher, I learned far more from these stories than I had to teach.
The work that FoodCorps and its partners (including the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona here in Tucson) do through the service of teachers like me ensures that kids get the—now rare—opportunity to experience the botanical origins of their food. This has been proven to translate into kids being more excited about new vegetables and eating more of them, and producing healthier, happier kids. This primary goal comes with the less obvious but no less important benefits of reduced stress, stronger communities, a connection to place, and increased food security. To learn more about how FoodCorps connects kids to health food, visit foodcorps.org.
Alex Loeppky is entering her second year as a FoodCorps Service Member with the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona in Tucson and is excited to continue growing plants, young food leaders, and herself in the beautiful Sonoran desert. Alex is a Tucsonan bike commuter and in her free time is an avid hiker and enjoys swimming and running.