About a decade ago when my granddaughter was a third-grader at Brown Elementary School in South Portland, she and I volunteered for a week during the summer to tend the school garden. That garden has since disappeared – more on that later – but thinking about it made me wonder how other school vegetable gardens in Maine fared this summer. It’s the season when gardens do most of their growing, of course, but at the same time teachers and students are on vacation. Did this summer’s drought make caring for school gardens a special challenge?
I learned that though some school gardens struggled, elsewhere, teachers, students and neighbors organized brigades of people to water plants. And those gardens thrived.
At the Riverton Elementary and East End Community schools in Portland, the vegetable gardens produced well throughout the summer, thanks to the efforts of volunteers. Twelve families volunteered for a week at each garden, following a schedule organized by FoodCorps service member Lily Chaleff, who helps oversee the gardens. (The national non-profit FoodCorps is modelled after AmericaCorps; Maine has about a dozen FoodCorps members, all of whom work with children, either in public schools or in 4-H or Cooperative Extension gardens.)
The effort was broader at Saccarappa School in Westbrook.
“We have a whole community that loves the garden,” said Guyla Woodbrey, a Saccarappa School kindergarten teacher who is in charge of the garden. Families did a lot of the summer maintenance, she said, and teachers filled in when some of the families went on vacation. Neighbors of the school also pitched in.
Chaleff and Woodbrey set up care schedules. Other communities solve the garden care gap by organizing summer garden programs that include tending school vegetable gardens.
According to Myra Manning, coordinator for the Maine School Garden Network, Maine has 130 school vegetable gardens; more may exist that she’s unaware of, she added. No organizations have tracked their numbers until recently, but Manning said she thinks the trajectory is headed up. She said she has received many requests for information on starting new gardens since she joined the network in May.
Maine’s interest in school gardens is part of a two-decades old national trend – think White House vegetable garden and Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard project – and is related to such movements as the local food/farm movement and concerns about childhood obesity.
Parents and school garden supporters say school gardens teach students about where their food comes from and how they can eat more healthfully. Other lessons, such as math and science, are also often integrated into the children’s garden curriculums. Vegetables grown in school gardens end up in school lunches or snacks or may be donated to local food pantries or given to students to take home to their families.
“The students learn much more deeply when out there (in the garden) working with their hands, creating an experience and capturing the learning, and they are more likely to remember the learning,” said Glen Widmer, principal of Walker Elementary School in Liberty.
The Brown School garden where I volunteered faded away from lack of interest some five yars ago, though I’m happy to say that an effort to revive it is underway. Are other school vegetable gardens in Maine managing to sustain themselves?
Although the Walker school garden is rated as one of the best in the state by MOFGA, Widmer worries he will not have enough money to pay staff to oversee it next year. For the past two years, the three school gardens in RSU 3, of which Walker Elementary is a part, have been coordinated by FoodCorps member Carolyn Wason. But the district has reached the end of its FoodCorps eligibility.
That prompted Widmer and his fellow RSU 3 principals to put in a budget request to hire someone to oversee the gardens. But that line item will have to compete for limited district dollars. While the garden has strong support, he said, some parents would prefer to spend money on other programs.
Because many grants are available, starting school gardens can be fairly easy, Manning said, but maintaining them can be more of a challenge.
“It’s easy say they are here to stay, but it’s not always the case if one person initiated the garden, and there is not a community around it to support the continuation,” Manning said. “If it is a staff member who leaves or a parent whose child ages out of the school, there can be a problem.”
Which is why she says it’s key for communities to support school gardens and to urge school boards to fund paid staffers to coordinate them.
Parents and school garden organizers say it’s definitely worth it.
“The excitement students have when they learn they can grow their own food is priceless,” Chaleff said. “And watching them gain understanding around what we can and cannot grow in Maine, seasonality of our gardens and how great things taste when picked fresh, bodes well for the future generation around the sustainability of our food system.”
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]