Growing Healthier Schools

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Salud Heroes
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UrbiCulture Community Farms are making school lunches look a little more like a garden with their new school garden programs. Teachers plant alongside students, helping them understand what it takes to grow food, and be more open to eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Students harvest the fresh produce from the 6,500 square-foot garden to bring to the cafeteria for all students to try and enjoy.

EMERGENCE

Awareness: Columbian Elementary School teacher Brenna Larson Brooks enjoyed gardening at home in Denver.

She wanted to use her backyard for a food garden, so she reached out to UrbiCulture Community Farms, a Denver nonprofit that turns donated land into gardens that grow food for the community.

UrbiCulture helped Brooks design and build her home garden and that gave her an idea: could UrbiCulture help her bring a garden to her school, too?

Brooks believed that, instead of just teaching kids in class how to sprout seeds, a garden might help her students better understand where healthy foods come from and what the benefits of healthy eating were.

Learn/Frame Issue: At the time, Brooks taught third grade at Columbian Elementary School, which is 95% Latino and where the free and reduced lunch eligibility rate is at 90%, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s report from 2012.

Gabrielle's Garden, another community garden made by UrbiCulture that offers a pay-what-you-can farmstand every Saturday and Wednesday. (Photo Source: UrbiCulture website/http://www.ucfarms.org/farmstands-and-classes.html)
Gabrielle’s Garden, another community garden made by UrbiCulture that offers a pay-what-you-can farmstand every Saturday and Wednesday to the surrounding community. (Photo Source: UrbiCulture website/http://www.ucfarms.org/farmstands-and-classes.html)

“Access to fresh foods and knowledge of fresh foods was non-existent,” Brooks said.

A garden might be a good way to bring fresh produce into the school cafeteria, she thought.

Brooks reached out to Candice Orlando, Executive Director of UrbiCulture, with her idea to start a school garden.

UrbiCulture has turned donated land—front yards, back yards, or city, church, or school land—into nearly 1.5 acres of farming land throughout Denver that feeds hundreds of people each season.

“My heart has always been really into focusing on children, especially children that are lower income, and just don’t have access to fresh vegetables, and if they do [have access] they don’t know what to do with them [vegetables],” Orlando said.

DEVELOPMENT

Education/Mobilization: Brooks and Orlando started brainstorming for a school garden.

They had a perfect area of land in mind. The school had a 6,500-square foot area full of overgrown perennials, weeds, shrubs, and grasses. Some students were scared to go into the deserted area, believing there were bears in the overgrown, weed-filled space, Orlando said.

Brooks reached out to the school board, teachers, principal, and UrbiCulture to discuss the idea to plant a garden in this overgrown, unkempt area.

Orlando was optimistic.

Three girls lookout on garden space at Columbian Elementary school. (Photo Source: Urbiculture)
Three girls lookout on garden space at Columbian Elementary school. (Photo Source: Urbiculture)

“The great thing about Denver public schools is they are very supportive of gardens in schools,” she said.

Debate: They faced a few challenges.

Some wanted to use the overgrown land for a parking lot. They also found that the land was also drained of nutrients needed to sustain a healthy garden.

They would also face other issues, such as logistical “nightmares” in doing gardens on the school’s property, where they were not allowed to do certain types of garden beds because they could be considered a fire hazard for the school.

ENACTMENT

Activation: Orlando and Brooks started on the garden’s design, keeping in mind they would need to get all design ideas submitted to the school and approved. They also worked on showing the school how the garden would need to be an asset to the school, with new avenues to teach kids and provide healthy foods to students.

They started meeting with and building support from school officials, teachers and parents.

They set a tentative date for planting the school garden and asked students from North High School’s “Garden of Youth” program that assists disabled kids, to help plant, cultivate and maintain the garden.

“I knew I wouldn’t be here [at Columbian Elementary] forever, so I wanted to make sure that the garden would be sustainable and wouldn’t fall on one person to maintain it,” Brooks said.

Orlando and Brooks applied for various grants for the school garden and also teamed with Andrew Nowak, part of Slow Food Denver, a non-profit organization that helps schools who grow food on campus get the fresh produce into the cafeteria.

“He [Nowak] almost singlehandedly changed the food scene in Denver,” said Brooks.

Volunteers, and students work with compost at the school. (Photo Source: Candice Orlando)
Volunteers and students work with compost at the school. (Photo Source: Candice Orlando)

Frame Policy: Everything was moving in the right direction until they realized one missing piece: they needed water access.

Getting water to the garden area would take some time and approval by school directors.

Eventually, Brooks and her team got the approval to have water prepared to turn on for the gardens.

Change: In winter 2011, the garden plans were approved by the school principal.

They also received a grant from the Wolcott Family Foundation, and the garden would be donated from The Kitchen Community, a non-profit 501c3 organization that supports learning gardens in schools and communities across the country.

IMPLEMENTATION

Implementation: On April 22, 2012, Earth Day, volunteers, parents, teachers, North High School students, and UrbiCulture staff helped plant the school gardens.

“The garden is right on site, and it’s open, so the kids are allowed to walk through it anytime and take a look and eat things, you know it’s very open,” Orlando said.

Brooks made a calendar for teachers and school cafeteria workers that showed the harvest days.

Girls playing in the garden, guessing what vegetable it is they may be touching. (Photo Source: UrbiCulture)
Girls playing in the garden, guessing what vegetable it is they may be touching. (Photo Source: UrbiCulture)

Twice a week, students would earn a trip to harvest the garden, and teachers would take a group with shopping baskets donated from Whole Foods to gather fresh fruits and veggies.

“The kids are actually eating the foods for their lunches,” Orlando said. “There are recipes for the kitchen crew on how to use the produce from the garden.”

Students then visit the cafeteria staff with carts full of fresh produce.

“It’s great to see,” Orlando said. “Everything’s really super fresh. And when it’s fresh from the ground, kids are really excited to try kale, or spinach or squash, so they are eating healthier. They see the whole process, and I think that’s something, you know, once you see where that food comes from, you’re more likely to eat.”

Brooks worked for the school for three more summers and still visits the gardens periodically in her current role as a mentor and instructional coach for teachers in the district.

While she was teaching there, she offered a free summer garden club that worked in the garden on Mondays and Wednesdays, using the Denver Urban Garden’s Curriculum to help students learn about healthy gardening and cooking practices.

“I loved that curriculum, they always had something fun and interactive and we would always cook something right there on the spot,” Brooks said. “Love and leadership grew, I would hear them talking about beets and kale–things they didn’t even know of–and I saw a lot of growth. They have so much more knowledge.”

Equity: Every fall, the school has a pay-what-you-can farm stand for the teachers and the parents of the school. The kids get to control and run the farms stand, learning about how to take care of cash, money, and business skills.

School farm stand allows students, teachers and the community to pay what they can. (Source: UrbiCulture)
School farm stand allows students, teachers and the community to pay what they can. (Source: UrbiCulture)

“It’s literally like people don’t have to pay anything, or they can pay $1 for a grocery bag full of food,” Orlando said. “They (the students) are learning other skills that are not just part of the food aspect.”

At the end of the every year, the school and UrbiCulture give recipes to all the families with ways to prepare the fresh vegetables, and the kids that are in the summer programs receive as much food as they would like to take home.

Sustainability: Local businesses continue to help fund the garden projects in different ways. The school and UrbiCulture still work on getting grants, and local support to fund the garden.

UrbiCulture also created the Columbian Elementary Youth Corps Program, which hired students from North High School’s students and their Garden of Youth program to mentor elementary students at the garden and help maintain the gardens.

Teachers appreciate and support the school gardens too, where the school asks all to respect the garden.

“Most of the teachers just love it, whether they are super involved or not, they are respectful of the garden,” Orlando said.

Orlando explained that Denver public schools have great connections with Slow Food Denver, like the Garden-to-Cafeteria programs, which continue to make their programs able to support the continuation of fresh school garden foods to be included in school lunches.

UrbiCulture has expanded school gardens into other schools that have requested their help.

In 2015, a teacher and a few parents from Ellis Elementary School asked UrbiCulture to help bring a garden to the school where students eligible to receive free and reduced lunch stood at 89.12% in 2012.

The school received help for the gardens, mirroring their garden and programs off of Columbian’s summer garden program.

Additional Links:

Urbiculture Community Farms

Wolcott Family Foundation

The Kitchen Community

Slow Food Denver

Denver Urban Garden’s Curriculum

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

ABOUT THE PROGRAM

Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

For more information, visit http://www.salud-america.org.

By The Numbers By The Numbers

22

percent

of Latino youth have depressive symptoms, more than any other group besides Native American youth

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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