When you imagine what you might find on the grounds of an urban elementary school – eggplant, peppers, kale and artichokes might not come to mind.
All across Denver, a coalition of nonprofit organizations, teachers, parents, volunteers and – most importantly – students are tending to a network of school gardens and in the process cultivating a generation of healthy children who will grow into healthy adults.
The model takes a community-based approach; there are hundreds of volunteers comprised of parents, teachers and community members who tend more than 60 DPS school gardens. While many districts nationwide are engaging in this work, DPS’ powerful combination of school gardens, healthy school food, school farms and nutrition education has established Denver as a leader in this work.
“Our goal is to educate young palates to appreciate fresh food,” said Andrew Nowak, a volunteer with Slow Food Denver, one of the driving nonprofit partners behind the school garden movement. “At the end of the day, what we’re doing is increasing their food literacy. The lessons include learning how to grow food, cook it and enjoy it with their school community. We believe by increasing their food literacy, they will have many of the tools they need to make lifelong healthy food choices. Ultimately, this will have an impact on health issues like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”
For 12 years, the Denver School Garden Coalition (comprised of Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition services and Facilities departments, Denver Urban Gardens, Slow Food Denver and the University of Colorado Learning Landscapes program) has been collaborating on the grounds of Denver Public Schools to establish school/community gardens. These gardens have become a big part of the culture in DPS, providing students (and the communities that surround DPS schools) with the opportunity to learn firsthand about growing, harvesting and cooking with fresh food.
Nowak has been a driving force in the DPS gardens program for more than a decade. When he moved to Denver in 2000, he was working as a teaching assistant at Steele Elementary. During a cooking class with his students, he asked: “Where did this carrot come from?”
“It occurred to me that they had possibly never seen a vegetable or fruit grow,” explained Nowak. “That’s when I knew I wanted to help get school gardens up and running in Denver.”
The gardens provide a space for experiential, hands-on education.
“Studies show to get kids excited about foods, particularly about new foods, they have to see it or touch it 7 to 10 times before they are going to try it,” said Nowak. “The process of growing the food and learning about the food all contributes to those touches. For example, the kids get an eggplant seed – they are touching it and learning about the plant it will produce. Then they watch it grow and develop flowers and fruits. By the time we get that eggplant in a cooking class, they have already had those seven or ten touch points. Then, if we make baba ghanoush or caponata with that eggplant, they will dive right in.”
The impact on kids is especially notable in the school cafeteria, where increasingly healthy foods are the norm.
“On the salad bars in schools today, everything is fresh, there’s not a single canned food item on the display,” said Nowak. “When you compare purchasing records from before the salad bars existed to the purchases seen today – the quantity of fresh produce purchased by Food and Nutrition Services has increased 50 percent districtwide. We believe it’s because the kids see things in the garden and then see it at the lunch table. Plus they are engaged in growing and harvesting it. When they see it on the salad bar, they are far more inclined to eat it, they have a connection to this fresh food.”
Especially in an urban environment, the benefits of healthy food education extend beyond the students to the families and communities surrounding the schools.
“We see the impact on the whole family,” said Nowak. “In the spring we send seedlings home with students. Many times, those kids take that seedling home to start a garden. When they come back in the fall, they’re excited to report they’ve been growing that plant all summer, they talk about ‘oh I have six peppers on my plant!’ or ‘I got this broccoli!’ And then those plants turn into home gardens.”
And the support from the Denver School Gardens Coalition doesn’t stop there.
“We also try to provide support for those families who maybe have never had a garden or grown a plant before,” said Nowak. “If they have any questions about the gardens, they can reach out to our network. Not just about growing, but about cooking the food. I’ll get a call from a parent saying ‘alright, I grew this dang beet, now what am I supposed to do with it?’ We send all the recipes we make at school home with the kids so they can try it with mom and dad. I definitely think the school gardens have inspired better eating and home growing at home.”
DPS is also helping teachers connect their classroom lessons to the things kids see and touch in the gardens. Life sciences curriculum expands outside the classroom and into the garden. Mathematics and economics come to life when students sell their garden food at school’s Youth Farmers’ Markets. It’s a holistic, hands-on education.
The DPS Foundation is proud to offer support for school gardens through the A to Z Fund Classroom grants.
“The DPS Foundation’s A to Z Grants have been a big part of many of these gardens,” said Nowak. “I encourage all of my schools to go after that money. It’s a fairly easy application, and those funds can be used very strategically to support things like school gardens, which cannot exist on their own. It’s been a huge help over the years.”
Learn more about DPS school gardens:
DPS School Garden Coalition – http://dug.org/dsgc/
Denver Urban Gardens – www.dug.org
Slow Food Denver – www.slowfooddenver.org
Seed to Table – www.sfdseedtotable.org
University of Colorado Learning Landscapes – www.learninglandscapes.org
Support school initiatives that fall outside school budgets – including school gardens – by contributing to the DPS Foundation’s A to Z Fund. Learn more here.