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Row by Row: Growing a School Garden Movement

One of the great successes of the new food movement is that planting gardens has become hugely popular in schools and other communal institutions. In the Jewish community, day schools and camps are increasingly jumping on the green bandwagon to install everything from small herb and flower container gardens to large-scale vegetable gardens.

When I speak to teachers, parents and other Jewish professionals in Atlanta and around the country, the big question is: Now what? They put tremendous sweat equity into building beds, transporting soil and planting seeds. How do they capture the energy and support in an ongoing way to reap all the benefits of what they have sewn?

“Organic farming is extremely difficult,” says Amy Price, a graduate of the Teva Learning Center currently working at Farmer D Organics in Atlanta, which works with a nearby day school. “You can’t just put a seed in the ground and hope for the best. You need information, advice and most importantly persistence.”

One institution that seems to be headed in the right direction is the Atlanta Public School system, which is leveraging a growing farm-to-school movement. Not only are the schools building gardens, but through organizations like Georgia Organics, they are educating and empowering teachers, parents and community members to maintain their gardens and integrate environmental education into their curricula. Passionate parents have started the APS parents’ farm-to-school coalition. The schools are also incorporating local and regional food suppliers in their lunch programs.

This is starting to happen in Atlanta Jewish day schools, as well. Torah Day School of Atlanta, an Orthodox elementary school, may be just down the street from Farmer D Organics, but don’t let that fool you. This is not a community of progressive neo-hippies. In one of the least likely areas one might expect to find a verdant garden, volunteer Roberta Scher led a transformative project at TDSA. She worked with Farmer D Organics and other corporate sponsors to install a beautiful raised bed garden that is highly visible from a main road through the Toco Hills neighborhood of Atlanta, and the school has now hired a part-time garden coordinator, Robin Saul.

Saul engages parents, volunteers and some of the older students at the school to assist in maintaining the garden. At the end of the day, she is the one accountable for this garden. She works with teachers to conduct activities with students in the garden. While Saul enjoys support from the principal, which has been essential for the garden’s success, she struggles with maintaining an active committee and gets resistance from some in the community. “The teachers who get it are great, but some may feel it takes away from the core work of the school — and more essential fundraising needs,” she said.

Educators and volunteers looking for educational resources can find national groups (JCCA Grows, Hazon’s Jewish Food Education Network, the Teva Learning Center, Jewish Farm School) and regionally based organizations (Eden Village Camp, Kayam Farm, [the Gan Project][10]). Broadening and enriching these networks to include administrators and educators across the spectrum could lead to a transformation in our schools that puts garden education on par with art, music, sports and service learning.

If you have or are considering installing a garden, these are some important ideas for our Jewish communal institutions to begin to consider:

• Train and motivate a team of teachers, parents and volunteers to create communities of practice.

• Collaborate with other schools and institutions to make it a communal initiative. Jewish federations, Jewish community centers and bureaus of Jewish education can be helpful partners.

• Emphasize financial resource development, volunteer recruitment and retention as part of a long-range plan to sustain the initiative.

• Begin conversations with food service providers at your institutions. Start small by introducing the idea of locally sourcing one ingredient for the semester or month.

• Encourage curricular integration with the school garden across subject areas. Provide incentives and support for teachers to make it happen throughout the school, and not only with your “true believers”.

With additional funds hard to come by and a multitude of core services to meet, full time staffing for food, gardening and other green initiatives may not be a reality at your institution. The two organizations highlighted here are experimenting with part time models to build their initiatives. Perhaps the answer lies in a centralized initiative that several agencies support and benefit from.

Next month we will look more closely at some examples of schools that have taken the inspiration of their garden programs to the next level and are creating some really innovative models and curricula for experiential Jewish learning. Please join in the conversation — let us known in the comments what your local Jewish schools are doing to ride the green wave to more sustainable Jewish organizations and communities.

Naomi Rabkin is an educator, organizer and food enthusiast who lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband and two children. She is Executive Director of Limmud Atlanta+SE and the founder of the Jewish Food Alliance, a coalition committed to building awareness, skills, knowledge and community around food access, sustainability and culture.


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