By Ellen Spitaleri
In late August, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded a $100,000 Environmental Education Grant to Growing Gardens, a nonprofit organization set up to provide gardening education to K-12 students and family home gardeners. This grant will help support and expand Youth Grow, the organization’s school garden-based education program, and the Home Gardens program for Portland residents with limited resources.
In the Youth Grow Program, students will learn about soil fertility, water cycles, plant growth and climate sustainability through agriculture, while adults in the Home Gardens Program will learn environmentally sustainable gardening methods. The projects will reach up to 2,500 K-12 students and 300 adult home gardeners in the low-income and underserved Portland metro area.
Growing Gardens was founded in 1997 to help families on a limited budget start growing their own food, and the Youth Grow program, which extended the benefits of gardening to children, started in 2009, said Anna Garwood, co-director of the Youth Grow Program. “School staff wanted to invite young people to experience nature first-hand and get them excited about eating vegetables,” she said.
Youth Grow Program
Originally started to build school gardens and run after-school garden clubs, Youth Grow now delivers in-depth programming side-by-side with classroom teachers as part of the school day as well as after school and in the summer, Garwood noted. “Today our team teaches about 3,000 students, 12 lessons per grade level, using a curriculum integrating environmental science and cultural food traditions,” she said.
The organization runs programs at 10 Title 1 elementary schools, including SE Portland’s Kelly, Whitman, Lent, Powell Butte, Patrick Lynch and Cherry Park, and one high school–David Douglas High School. “We are also teaching in Spanish at three Portland Public Schools with dual-language immersion programs,” she added.
“We grow over 1,000 pounds of organic produce and offer tastings in the cafeteria to introduce students to a diversity of fresh local produce,” Garwood said. Cat Ayala, the Youth Grow educator at Whitman Elementary School, said as her students grew, harvested and prepared their salads for a tasting in the cafeteria, she saw them become very invested in their food.
“When we did a tasting, almost all the students wanted a bit of salad. Many said it was the best they’ve ever had,” she said, adding that “multiple teachers said that they have never seen so many students eat salads at lunch.”
Another part of Youth Grow is the teen after-school program at David Douglas High School, where Corey Pierson, food system educator, teaches three after school clubs. The Gardening Club focuses on cultivating a thriving courtyard garden and plot in the adjacent community garden. The youth harvest and donate all of the organic produce to the school-based food pantry. Teens in the Cooking Club enjoy preparing recipes from around the world with this produce and other ingredients.
Youth in the Environmental Action Club seek solutions to local environmental issues that they identify. Last year, the students sought to implement a composting program after witnessing the tons of trash generated by school meals.
“One innovative aspect is that the high school youth join our educator at Cherry Park Elementary School once a week, where they develop leadership skills by teaching cooking and gardening to younger students,” Garwood said. She added, “Garden-based learning builds childrens’ sense of contributing meaningfully to their community, while teachers consistently report that project-based learning is an excellent way for students with a range of academic, language and physical abilities to engage in learning.”
Home Gardens Program
The Home Gardens program partners with low-income households and families in Portland, Gresham, Milwaukie and Oregon City neighborhoods to eliminate the barriers to starting a sustainable food-producing garden. “Food insecurity is at an all-time high in our nation and we believe that having access to healthy food is a human right,” Garwood said. Through this three-year, no-cost program, Growing Gardens provides all the tools and resources to start and sustain a home-scale garden.
To qualify for this program, families who live in SE, NE or N Portland and who are at or below 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level are invited to apply for the Home Gardens program at growing-gardens.org/home-gardens. The program provides a garden installation, plant seeds and starts, compost, tools and educational workshops. It also matches up beginning gardeners with more experienced gardeners to provide one-on-one mentoring throughout the season.
After an initial garden consultation to determine the best location for their home garden, participants will be able to choose an in-ground garden, a container garden or an accessible raised-bed garden. They will get help from their mentor and will also be given written garden resources in English and Spanish.
Garwood added, “When participants graduate, they will have the skills to save seeds, care for the soil and maintain their garden each season, while being self-sufficient in growing healthy food right at their home.”
Top photo: Students harvest salad greens from the school garden at Lents Elementary School. Photo by Growing Gardens.