Last week on the blog “Audacious Ideas” (sponsored by the Soros-funded Open Society Institute of Baltimore that the MKCREATIVE blog featured earlier this month) Jill Wrigley wrote about establishing “a garden in every school.” Her ambition is to establish gardens that become fields of learning such cognitive skills as science (chemistry, biology), math (areas, fractions, scales of measurement), art (design, colors), and of course, nutrition.
The nutritional crisis the nation’s youth, especially in larger cities, is staggering and will only further raise already ballooning health-care costs in the economy. Ms. Wrigley draws from government statistics about the rise in diabetes: “The Centers for Disease Control predicts that for children born in the year 2000, one in three risks developing diet-related diabetes; one in every two—or 50% of—African-American and Latino children risk getting that debilitating disease.” Such a condition not only limits the activities and opportunities for the sufferer (thus creating a cycle of sedentary activities and poorer diet that spurs the diabetes), but creates a culture of (lowered) expectations in the community.
School gardens can break those cycles by offering some of the practical academic lessons noted above, as well as providing a desire for better fresher food. Ms. Wrigley also foresees a strengthening of family and community in the process. “The bounty of the garden—and the additional bounty of urban and area farms—is brought indoors where students learn to cook delicious and healthy meals. Students and mentors create community dinners, where on a Friday evening at the end of a long work week, families and friends sit down to a wonderful meal prepared by the children and youth and are invited to participate in the age-old human practice of forming community through the sharing of food and conversation around a table.”
Ariel Demas has been cooking and gardening with Baltimore-city kids for a while now, and has brought many school administrators around to support the gardens. Unfortunately, the support has not been forthcoming from city- or state-wide officers. According to the “Baltimore City Paper,”
Demas says one of her students did a cost assessment of the Food Is Elementary curriculum and came up with a figure: $229 per student. “I suggested she compare the cost of this to the cost of diet related diseases,” Demas says, adding that by the government cost-benefit formulas in use today, if the classes could prevent just one case of Type-2 diabetes, they would be cost-effective for the whole school district.
Getting government bean counters to buy that, however, seems years away.
“I’ve trained hundreds, probably thousands [of teachers] by now,” Demas says. “My curriculum is in at least 2,000 schools.” But in most, she says, it is temporary, ending after a year or two when a grant runs dry. The key to success, Demas says, is to integrate it into the regular curriculum. “My goal is to have a food educator in every school paid for by the school district–to teach food and nutrition and cooking and gardening. Food literacy, starting at a very young age. I want kids growing up knowing how to grow food.”
The program has been successful both in encouraging long-term healthy diets among school children and in harvesting awards from institutions like The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, who awarded the Baltimore City Public Schoolsin Local Food Procurement and Food Education in 2009:
Nevertheless, how engaged with this project Maryland schools might remain after the midterm and gubernatorial elections this November is difficult to predict, as both Governor O’Malley and Republican challengerare trying to tie education to job growth, not garden growth. Given the economic climate, such links are not surprising, but hopefully the state will continue to support this initiative adding more greenbacks to the effort to get some green into the diets of school children.