Frustration over school gardens takes root

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011

Charlotte Schoeneman thought her daughter's Takoma Park school would welcome a parent proposal to start a vegetable garden; the city typically embraces all things green.

But she and other Montgomery County parents were rebuffed, told that one person's tomato is another one's maintenance nightmare. School officials cited allergies, pests and possible summertime neglect as reasons for concern.

The parents, who were inspired in part by first lady Michelle Obama's national campaign to fight childhood obesity, said they're puzzled by the school system's decision. In D.C., which has the highest rate of adolescent obesity in the country, several public schools have gardens, and a recently passed law encourages more. Arlington County boasts about 25.

"Vegetable gardens teach kids that there's more to a meal than just chicken nuggets on a plastic tray," Schoeneman said.

Schoeneman said that she and other members of the Takoma Park Elementary School PTA have worked to improve food at the school, though their victories have been minor at best. The school's principal nixed a proposal to use school property for a garden, Schoeneman said, saying she was worried about attracting pests.

Schoeneman said she enjoys spending time with her second-grade daughter in their own Takoma Park vegetable garden, which attracts nary a rat.

"If you had a fruit tree, you could see the fruit growing on the tree," Schoeneman said. "If you had a little plot, you could have beans and some chard and some onions. You could watch those things growing on their own."

Montgomery County's handful of school vegetable gardens came about only because some schools went rogue and built them without central office permission. Parents whisper about them and try to shield them from publicity.

A February letter from Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to the school board outlined his concerns.

"Because vegetable gardens are a food source for pests, create liabilities for children with food allergies, and have other associated concerns, the Department of Facilities Management staff has not approved gardens designed to produce food," he wrote.

He suggested instead that the school system work with the Montgomery Department of Parks to build gardens on park property near school sites. Parents say that's not a meaningful option for teachers who want to make growing food part of the school day.

When the gardens are off school grounds, "it's kind of pointless, because it's not acting within the curriculum, and the teachers couldn't embrace it," said Kristen Dill, another Takoma Park Elementary parent. She has a degree in horticulture and grew up in Nebraska. But she's been stymied in the suburban wilds of Montgomery County.

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