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Lonnie Sclerandi, a Spanish teacher and soccer coach at Austin Independent School District, downsized his home a few years ago and no longer had land for a garden for fresh produce.
He asked his school principal if he could plant a small garden outside the portable building where he taught.
The principal said, “Yes.”
Sclerandi then researched online about what produce would be seasonal for central Texas, and how to cultivate a garden in the area. He bought gardening tools and seeds with his own money, and got started.
He tended the garden for a year.
Then his students started to ask him what he was doing—which eventually grew a cool new healthy change.
How the Garden Started
Food service leaders at Austin Independent School District (AISD), which is about 60% Hispanic, revised its school menus to incorporate more local, fresh produce over the last few years.
But they wanted to do more to promote healthy eating.
A community garden is one way to solve the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
District food service leaders took notice of Sclerandi’s personal garden.
They thought it might be a great venue to teach kids how produce goes from seeds to the table.
District leaders approached Sclerandi about the idea and was met with enthusiasm.
Sclerandi knew many Austin-area students and families needed better access to fresh produce for meals and snacks.
“There are food deserts that are popping up all over town,” Sclerandi said. “The economically disadvantaged people are often times forced to live in situations where healthy food is not often available.
And after plants began to grow and flourish in the garden, students began to notice and ask Sclerandi questions about the garden. He knew students were curious and wanted to know more.
So Sclerandi and district officials began looking at how to expand the garden and engage students.
Growing up the Garden
The Sustainable Food Center reached out to Sclerandi during his research to offer him use of their resources, seed library, and tool-loaning program.
They had guides for growing and resources that would help him teach students how to work in a garden.
The resources helped that first year, but Sclerandi and district officials decided not to accept any other funding or help from outside sources. They wanted to use this garden as an example of how any school could plan, build, manage and sustain a school-based garden without external funding.
Sclerandi had a functioning garden after one year of maintaining it himself.
But he still didn’t know how to involve students—who were starting to show interest in his work—or start a Garden Club.
He wanted to make sure he could teach students how to plant seeds, maintain growth, and harvest produce that would somehow be distributed to the students.
Building a Program, Too
One year after Sclerandi first planted, he capitalized on student interest and began to ask his students if they wanted to start a Garden Club.
He knew student interest had to be high before officially proposing the idea to the school principal, because it would mean a larger garden and students would have to take on a lot of responsibility, perhaps away from other activities.
Through word of mouth, Sclerandi found that many students were interested, ready to take on this responsibility, and eager for the opportunity to grow their own food!
The Garden Club would give students an active role in growing their own produce. The students would meet once a week to plant seeds, weed the garden, harvest any produce, and plan how to use the garden to its full potential.
By making this garden student run, Sclerandi and district officials would be able to see how students sustain a garden and teach other schools how to do the same.
In 2011, Sclerandi brought his idea to expand the garden and start a Garden Club to the school principal, who a year ago approved the planting of his own personal garden. Again, the principal approved.
The club garnered 20 student members and starting meeting before school each Friday.
Sclerandi said the garden is an oasis of healthy food in a food desert, offering a new choice over fast food.
“If [local residents] want to eat healthier they are going to be forced to grow their own food—which is what we are teaching kids how to do out here in the gardens,” Sclerandi said.
Expanding the Program, Garden
Students began gardening and expanding Sclerandi’s original plantings. The garden started to produce many fruits and vegetables.
Some students took home the produce they harvested.
Sclerandi and students also began a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for teachers, because of the large amount of food being harvested by the students. Teachers buy into the CSA and receive a variety of produce from each harvest. This money provides materials, seeds, and tools that keep the garden growing.
To ensure both Garden Club members and all other students at the high school learn about the need to grow and eat fresh fruit and vegetables, food service leaders started doing taste tests and creating meals with some of the produce being grown.
The first taste test was fennel, a vegetable with a similar taste to anise, prepared with a balsamic glaze.
Fennel was a big hit with the students.
“This is the dish that the garden club kids grew, and then ate,” Sclerandi said, “which then sparks some of their curiosity.”
Students continue to maintain plant beds. As of January 2014 the garden is a 1,000-square-foot plot of land, which produces a lot of fruits and vegetables.
Students are planting as many seasonal and local plants as possible, such as sugar snap peas, carrots, onions, lettuce, dark greens, cilantro, and many others.
Food service leaders want to create a guide for school gardens, so other district schools and other districts in the country to know that they can easily create sustainable, edible, low- or no-cost gardens.
Sclerandi said he’ll gladly help in that effort because he is proud of the Garden Club students and their success creating something sustainable.
“We’re kind of blazing a trail over here. I want us to be on the leading edge of this thing. It’s a move in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not like a trend that will be dying out soon, being able to know how to grow your own food is going to become more and more necessary.”
By The Numbers
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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