Gardens are a good thing. Period. But in an inner-city school, they’re wonderful. They provide hands-on lessons on how plants grow and encourage kids to eat nutritiously. Plus, the green space beautifies the school.
But starting a school garden and maintaining it turns out to be more complicated than some might think. That’s because everyone is excited to plant one initially, but if teachers are solely responsible for their upkeep, they can become too busy with classroom duties and might not be around over the summer when the plants need tending.
Fortunately, that’s where the nonprofit Gardeneers comes in. It offers a program to plant gardens at Chicago schools and maintain them while also providing lesson plans and a weekly visiting teacher.
Teach for America alumni May Tsupros and Adam Zmick, who founded the Gardeneers, explain on a crowd fundraising website that their model for becoming rotating garden specialists is based on the idea of a visiting speech pathologist, who rotates to a different school each day of the week. The Gardeneers rotate among schools, teaching lessons during school related to the curriculum in such subjects as chemistry, biology, and nutrition, and then enlist the kids’ help to tend the plants in the after school garden clubs.
During the summer, the nonprofit organizes neighborhood volunteers to help keep the plants thriving. The Gardeneers make sure the garden’s produce reaches the children’s lunch plates, coordinating with cafeteria staff to ensure everybody gets to taste the bounty.
According to Cortney Ahem of Food Tank, the Gardeneers offer their services throughout the growing season to schools for a maximum of $10,000, compared to the $35,000 some companies charge for garden installations alone.
Three Chicago schools have jumped at the chance to work with the Gardeneers this growing season, and Zmick and Tsupros hope to expand that to 50 schools during the next five years. They plan to focus on schools where 90 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Zmick told Ahem, “School gardens are incredibly important from an educational perspective. There’s so much data about how these gardens can improve academic outcomes, reduce discipline problems, develop job skills, and strengthen the local community.”
Tsupros thinks gardens can be the key to national renewal. “I believe with all my heart that food, nutrition, and community are the foundations on which we need to build and focus our attention regarding education in Chicago and all the United States. One small seed can grow a bountiful harvest, and I hope that Gardeneers can be that seed.”