“The kids are very excited to do anything in the garden,” said Mampara. “There’s something to be said for education that brings so much joy.” Mampara’s position and much of the costs of the vegetable garden and food lab have been funded by the nonprofit Freshfarm Markets.
Across town at Stoddert Elementary School in Glover Park, the school garden occupies about 4,000 square feet at the edge of a ball field and serves as a model for its various components, said Sam Ullery, the school system’s school garden specialist. “I love this garden because it has all the elements we want,” he said, surveying the site. Picnic tables and pint-sized benches are arranged in the shade of two old walnut trees. The sunnier areas contain a butterfly garden, an area of American Indian crops and the vegetable and herb garden proper, growing out of six raised beds. Framed in split-rail fencing (soon to support espaliered fruit trees), the space also includes a storage shed and a greenhouse where garden coordinator Kealy Rudersdorf is preparing to start seeds as part of classroom lessons. The garden is two years old, but Rudersdorf started last winter after a stint at an organic cacao farm in Costa Rica. She also has a master’s degree in education.
“The more you have out here, the more you can inspire the teachers” to work the garden into lesson plans, said Sarah Bernardi, director of programs at D.C. Greens, Stoddert’s sponsoring nonprofit.
The gardens offer obvious contexts for botany, ecology and agriculture, but they also serve as laboratories for math, social studies, language, soil science, art, genetics — the list is almost endless to a creative teacher.
Rudimentary at the elementary level, the gardens provide high-schoolers a starker link between the source of food and its quality and nutrition at a time when our food norms are seriously out of kilter. At the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a small, public charter high school in Anacostia, a large fruit and vegetable garden serves as a pleasant green space for its students and a place to learn for members of the school’s garden club. Seven students worked in the garden over the summer. Its chief sponsor was Earth Day Network.
“With young kids it’s much more exploratory and sensational,” said Kate Lee, the part-time garden coordinator. “With the older kids it’s more a frame of reference: How does this relate to our culture and our community?”
Urban food deserts are seen as a contributor to poor diet and a factor in obesity rates that are higher among African Americans.
But even in the agricultural heartland, generations of children have lost a connection to the story of their food.
“I grew up in Nebraska, and my mom always had a garden in the back yard, but I didn’t know what was going on,” Rudersdorf said. “I wish I had something like this. I think it’s a great learning opportunity.”
School gardens, now as fruitful as the late summer harvest, should be viewed as not only viable but indispensable.
Perhaps no previous generation of schoolchildren required them more: With climate change and other ecological crises, kids today need a grounding in the environment. On a personal level, they need to understand that fresh food means a good diet.
In the fourth-floor food lab at Watkins, Mampara said that “a lot of people compare what we are doing here to home economics. It is so far from that. This is hugely important in their understanding of what food is, where it comes from and what it means to eat well.”
@adrian_higgins on Twitter
Read past columns by Higgins.