Over the last two years, schoolyards at Detroit Public Schools all over the city have begun sprouting raised garden beds. Not only do these beds grow produce that nurtures students' bodies, the gardens nurture their minds as well, being used in lessons across the curriculum from science classes to math and language arts.
The gardens are part of the Detroit School Garden Collaborative, a partnership between the Detroit Public Schools and The Greening of Detroit. The DSGC got started in 2012, with funding through the Healthy and Hunger Free Schools Act. Betty Wiggins, the executive director of the office of school nutrition for DPS, earmarked some of the funds the school district got from the government to start the program. When the gardening season gets started this April, the program will be active at 51 schools.
The school district provides six raised beds and clean soil to fill them, along with seedlings to plant. The principal at each building assigns a key teacher to helm the program and implement the curriculum. The district also provides a garden attendant to help the teacher keep the garden weeded and watered and assists with some of the lessons. And at some schools, they hire students age 14 and up to be garden assistants, who help tend the garden through the summer months and get to participate in field trips to see agricultural producers all over the state.
The district produces most of its own transplants for the garden beds as well, from a greenhouse maintained by students at the Randolph Vocational Center. Some classrooms also produce their own transplants in half the beds, the key teacher can grow whatever produce they want to use; in the other half, they grow what's called "stoplight salad" -- red tomatoes, yellow squash, and green zucchini. That goes on the menu at the school, so the kids are actually eating food the helped grow. It also goes to charter schools for which DPS is the school food authority.
"The overall goal is to have an impact on the what these young people eat," says Zaundra Wimberley, DPS director of school gardens and farms. "We want to have an impact on their thought process that an orange or an apple or a red pepper is just as viable a snack as a bag of Cheetos."
Barbara Lothery, a fifth grade homeroom teacher at Nichols Elementary-Middle School in Indian Village and the co-lead teacher for the school's garden club, says her students demonstrate a much greater awareness of where their food comes from and the impact it has on their health. "They're so eager to even taste food that they may have been scared of before, or never liked," she says. "One day we had some spinach and one little boy asked 'Is this how real spinach tastes? I've only ever had it from the can.' It blew me away."
Lothery and her co-teacher, Angela Link, have around 10 kids in third through eighth grade in the garden club, and they also use the garden for lessons in math, science and language arts. Greening of Detroit created the curriculum they use. Lothery also emphasizes the career aspect for her students – that even though they are living in an urban environment, they can grow up to pursue careers in agriculture and make money doing something they enjoy.
The garden also illustrates how growing your own food can bring a healthier diet within reach for students whose families may struggle financially. Some parents have begun growing their own food at home, Lothery says, and one student told her she'd seen the price of organic spinach at the store and couldn’t believe they got it for free right out of the beds at school.
Nichols Elementary-Middle's garden has drawn support from the surrounding neighborhood as well. The Indian Village Garden Club raised funds and brought volunteer muscle to build six additional raised beds at the school; they also helped use extra soil to create supplemental gardens around the fence line of the school. Volunteers helped Lothery construct a rustic classroom for the children, as well -- they sawed pallets into tables and created stools out of a trunk from a tree that was cut down in the neighborhood. One volunteer even came in to teach the children about composting, Lothery says.
Community connections are one of the more important goals of the program, says Tepfirah Rushdan, Greening Of Detroit's urban agriculture manager. When school is out for the summer the garden attendants will reach out to the community to distribute the produce that is ready to be harvested. At Nichols, their extra food goes to a senior center; other garden bounty goes directly to the neighborhood residents, at no charge.
"We want the garden to be part of the culture of the school, just like the gym or the cafeteria," she says. Rushdan says she's been struck by the effect being in the garden has had on children who might have some issues with behavior in a traditional classroom.
"They are the same ones sticking their hands in the dirt and pulling a wheelbarrow," she says. "It's a return to nature for a lot of student who don’t get the exposure to nature that their suburban counterparts may get."
Lothery says she's been extremely pleased with the reception her school's garden has received from parents, volunteers and the community. "Everyone has been amazing," she says. "Our garden is called the 'Garden of Love,' and everyone who comes over is just beautiful."
Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
Photos by Marvin Shaouni