About 80 D.C. schools are growing fruits and vegetables, according to DC Greens, a nonprofit group that helps set up school gardens. But Walker-Jones thinks big. Last year the one-acre farm produced 4,200 pounds of food, Hilmy said.
The Northwest Washington school’s 450 students pitch in throughout the growing season, said Frances Evangelista, dean of students. Middle school students grow seedlings in the farm’s greenhouse during cold-weather months. Younger classes adopt one of five fields, plant seedlings once the weather warms, and they care for the crops until harvest time. (Hilmy keeps things going during summer break.)
“The three Ws for gardening or farming are weeding, watering and watching,” Hilmy said. “We spend more time weeding than anything else.”
In addition to typical garden vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, Walker-Jones grows more unusual crops, including leeks, eggplants, soybeans and peanuts. Students also tend bees with the help of a trained beekeeper and harvest their honey.
Not everyone liked the bees to begin with.
“I’m so scared of bees,” said Yasmin Tisdale, a seventh-grader. “But then they told me that it was honeybees. I’m not scared of honeybees.”
Yasmin said that once she tasted the honey, she became a big fan of keeping bees on the farm. Classmates Ying Lan and Ralanda Simpson, both 13, agreed that because of the farm they tried foods they might not have otherwise.
“For me, it was the mint,” Ralanda said of one of the many products of the school’s herb garden.
Walker-Jones created a food lab and works with a professional chef to use food from the farm into science, math and other lessons.
Food not used in the classroom has been sent home with students, shared with nearby retirement homes and sold at local farmers’ markets. Neighborhood residents who need food know that they can come by for fresh veggies, Evangelista said.
Hilmy said he sees long-term benefits students can gain from the lessons about food, working together and sharing what they produce.
“You can imagine what kind of citizens they’re going to be,” Hilmy said.
— Christina Barron