There’s a food revolution brewing in over half of New York City’s public schools, and it’s not slowing down. Thanks to the local nonprofit GrowNYC, The Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC, and Grow to Learn, five boroughs have been established to set up sustainable gardens in public schools. There are now at least 700 gardens across the city, and teachers are witnessing a myriad of changes in the kids who are spending more time outdoors and less time in a “traditional” classroom setting.
From container gardens to bottle planters in the classrooms, teachers and the kids are getting creative to grow produce at their schools. Arielle Hartman, School Gardens Coordinator with GrowNYC, said, “I’ve seen teachers grow plants in soda bottles and old shoes or in projector carts with fluorescent lights.” Some of the most popular vegetables and fruit that are being grown include tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, eggplant, mint, collard greens, and herbs. At some schools, grapes and strawberries are cultivated, as well.
The benefits of school gardening extend beyond the children learning about where their food comes from — which is an important lesson. For many kids, the gardens exist as a place of respite and contemplation. Rodale’s Organic Life reports, “Schools are using these green spaces not only as teaching tools and hands-on laboratories for math and science, they’ve also become arenas for social and emotional growth, particularly for students who may not do well in the traditional classroom environment, as well as serving as a respite for teachers and administrators.”
As a result of improved emotional well-being among the student body, teachers are witnessing a reduction in behavioral issues. Julie Walsh, Assistant Director at GrowNYC, said, “Behavioral issues are dramatically reduced when kids are exposed to nature and to this kind of real sensory and experimental learning that the natural world offers.” Research presented at the 2017 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition supports this observation. It noted that green schoolyards — which are bursting with nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables — provide children, families and their communities a “healthy environment” for relaxation and play.
Walsh says that by partnering with agencies, such as the Parks Department and the Department of Education, the challenge of introducing gardens into schools was made much easier. “Historically, one of the challenges for successful and sustainable school garden models has been a lack of coordination,” said Walsh. “If you try to do this in a vacuum, you run into bureaucratic impediments. By partnering […], we’re able to help schools run the gauntlet with these agencies so they don’t run into obstacles.”
Other schools can easily implement a garden by partnering with the Grow to Learn program. Registered schools can attend free workshops that cover a number of relevant topics, and schools are eligible to receive free garden materials, access to an online resource library and garden network and the tools to apply for mini-grant funding to start or expand a school garden.
The future of school gardens is only limited by the creativity of the teachers, parents, administrators, and students. As long as all involved are willing to work together, public school gardens can flourish across the entire city — and perhaps, the entire nation.