Food is a force for good. We believe this to be true in every aspect of what we do — that’s why we work with forward-thinking nonprofit partners to promote healthy living and eating in our cities. One of those incredible partners, Grow to Learn, is turning the country’s most notorious concrete jungle into an urban oasis where kids and teens can learn, grow, and thrive. We’re proud to champion this organization’s mission to introduce a sustainable school garden in every single learning space in NYC.
Launching a garden in every school across the five boroughs is no easy task — just ask Jessie Kerr-Vanderslice. As the director of Grow to Learn, she knows that implementing a successful school garden takes a village; but she’s also the first to acknowledge that it can yield some serious benefits for youngsters, teachers, and communities alike. The Grow to Learn team gets to know the unique personality, needs, and gardening interests of each school — that’s how they’re able to ensure each green space contributes to student learning in the cafeteria, classroom, and beyond. It takes heart, critical thinking, lots of helpful hands, and some guidelines that Jessie shared with us:
No two schools or communities are alike — and that means the same goes for their gardens. As Jessie puts it, these green spaces should first and foremost be sustainable and responsive to the individual school and community.
“If you have a school that wants to grow jalapeño peppers because you’re going to have a salsa cook-off at the end of the year, do it! [For] some schools it might be more about wellness and healthy eating; some schools it’s about therapy and social and emotional wellness; some it’s about having a nice place to have parent-teacher-student events and community building. Oftentimes, it’s many of those things all combined.”
Learn to Grow, Grow to Learn
Sure, having access to garden spaces can mean hours of fun for youngsters — but it goes far beyond that. Jessie cited a recent study out of Barcelona that spoke to the learning benefits of even passing exposure to greenery:
“[The study] looked at inner city kids who were walking to school and where their walking routes took them. If kids had a more green walk to school — even if it was controlled for all the other factors having to do with poverty, home environment, and their actual school experience — walking to school through a park or past lots of big trees meant they were more focused in class. They were able to pay better attention, which also ultimately meant they were higher achieving.”
“I don’t think we know all the whys behind this, but I do feel that there is something about green spaces for kids. It’s about getting them out and active but also allowing them to learn in different types of environments, ask questions, and have a natural experience.”
They Put the ‘Plan’ in Plants
Goal- and expectation-setting are typically the first steps to planting a successful garden — then the more unique preparations begin. There’s no guarantee that all schools Grow to Learn works with will have a seasoned grower or even a green-thumbed hobbyist on staff, so that’s where Jessie and her team come in. They arrive on site, ready to help think through a potential garden layout — from which plants could work, to space planning, to ensuring accessibility for all types of learners.
“We come out to a school and go through a strategic planning process for the garden. There are best practices around how you’re maintaining the spaces, how often you’re getting your kids out there — whether you’re focused on healthy eating or healthy environment or building a community. We set up the schools with information in mind and right tools to bring it to life.”
Growing Young Growers
For the team at Grow to Learn, gardening is an exercise in empowerment. They leave the curriculum-building to teachers — encouraging them to build lessons and learning moments around the garden’s successes and failures. They’ve found that empowering teachers and students can create a culture shift in the way New Yorkers (young and old) think about their food, wellness, and even personal grocery budgets.
“I was at a middle school [facilitating a farmers’ market] in the Bronx and they have this very cool garden that we work with regularly. [The students] are coming through and picking out what they want and we have boxes of peaches, blueberries, and then we have some spinach and kale.”
“So of course most of the kids say they’ll take just peaches. But one kid in particular walked up and he said, ‘Oh, this Swiss chard is just beautiful.’ I was like, ‘Oh really?’ and was laughing to myself a little bit. He said, ‘Yes, I always grow Swiss chard outside. I’ll take three bunches.’ So he bought a giant bag of Swiss chard. Those moments are irreplaceable.”
Transforming Relationships With the Outdoors
From the moment an educator decides their school could benefit from a garden, to the goal-setting, planning, and growing that takes place thereafter, there are a lot of details to be considered. But the whole process is about way more than logistics; it’s about creating a new culture. For many students in New York, garden-growing represents an unprecedented learning experience and relationship with the outdoors.
“We hear from teachers, parents, and kids themselves. You’re growing up in New York and in every other place in your life, [you hear], ‘That’s dirty, don’t touch it.’ Then we send them outside to the dirt, and we’re expecting them to say, ‘Yay! Great!’ But 100% of [their] childhood has been preparing them to say, ‘NO.’
“I think there is this inherent idea kids have that they’re not supposed to get their hands dirty. So to bridge that gap and get kids to the point where they are like, ‘Yay, worms!’ is an even bigger step when your kid is growing up in an environment, where touching the soil is something totally beyond their experience.”
As we concluded our chat in the green space at Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School, we sensed that Jessie had much more to tell us. But the kids were on summer break, so the garden felt quiet, as though it was resting up, waiting for a new school year to begin. Grow to Learn has helped hundreds of schools launch their urban gardening spaces, and Brooklyn Arbor is just one of them.
This fall, when the garden vibrates with the energy of learning youngsters, we’ll be there, shoving our noses into plants in the sensory garden, digging our hands into the student-aerated dirt, sampling bites from the recently plucked autumn harvest. Jessie has so much more to tell us, and Grow to Learn is just getting started.