Frustration over school gardens takes root

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; C01

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.

"Elsewhere, there's so much energy right now" around vegetable gardens at schools, Dill said. In Montgomery, by contrast, "it feels like molasses," she said.

School officials said they are working to develop standardized plans for container gardens that schools could use as soon as this spring. The school system also has allowed some property near administrative buildings - not schools - to be used for community vegetable gardens. But many parents and community advocates say that's not enough.

"There are school systems around the country that are embracing this," said Gordon Clark, director of Montgomery Victory Gardens, a group pushing for community gardens. "Any school that wants to do it should have some support from the school system to do it any way they want."

Parents and teachers around Montgomery County, including at Takoma Park and Piney Branch elementary schools and Montgomery Blair High School, have tried unsuccessfully to start vegetable gardens.

Montgomery officials said there is no ban against vegetable gardens and cite the schools that have them to prove their point. But they said they have discouraged them until now due to concerns about pests such as rats and groundhogs, who might be attracted to the vegetables, and with student allergies to certain crops. Nevertheless, they're committed to the idea, they said.

"Any school in Montgomery County that wants a vegetable garden, there will be a way for them to have a vegetable garden," said Sean Gallagher, assistant director of the school system's Department of Facilities Management.

Initially, he said, schools will have an approved template for a portable container garden. Later, "if a school has shown they can do really well with a container garden," they might be able to move on to more traditional raised beds. "We just want to give them the right guidance to be successful."

Many other local school systems have embraced gardens without such caveats. The first lady made headlines when she invited students from Bancroft Elementary School in the District to help plant the White House vegetable garden, and she made more headlines when she in turn visited Bancroft to help students plant theirs.

The D.C. Healthy Schools Act, passed in May, created a program that gives grants to D.C. schools to help them set up school gardens and encourages them to create compost piles as part of them. At least nine schools have vegetable gardens.

And in Arlington, the school system has encouraged gardens without exerting significant direct control.

"There's no central policy of 'this is where your garden's going to be, this is what you're going to grow.' It's up to the school," said Frank Bellavia, a spokesman for the school system.

Bellavia said he had not heard of any issues with pests or allergies and that someone from the community typically maintains the gardens over the summer. Vegetables from the school gardens usually are donated to a food bank, he said.

Meanwhile, Montgomery parents have lowered their expectations.

"I'm not really hoping for much," said Schoeneman. "I just keep plugging away, and maybe something good will happen as the tides turn."

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