Growing an inner-city gardening program from ground-up

A conversation with kindergartners changed the course of Stephanie Gwinn's career three years ago. The Parkside Elementary School librarian in Grant Park was reading to students a book in which a character ate meat, a notion that struck the children as equally bizarre and horrifying.

And that's when they learned that their favorite foods, such as chicken fingers and hamburgers, come from animals, and that spaghetti and pizza are made from wheat and tomatoes grown in the ground.

"To them, food came from the grocery store," she said. "I realized we had some educating to do.”

Gwinn thus set out to get Parkside kids in the garden. She received a grant from Outward Bound, a nonprofit organization geared toward outdoor learning experiences, which now sends volunteers to Parkside once a week to teach the students everything from planting a seed to composting.

While Parkside's food gardening program began three years ago with kids from all grade levels, it now consists of kindergartners and fourth-graders who spend a half hour to 45 minutes each Wednesday growing lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, garlic and melon. In the past several years, the students and volunteers have built a butterfly garden and outdoor classroom, though now their focus is mainly on growing edibles, she said.

With the guidance of Outward Bound volunteers, the kids maintain a food garden in honor of the late teacher A. Coleman, who Gwinn said was actively involved in the outdoor expedition project. They have also built a small greenhouse for starting seeds, complete with rain barrels attached to its gutters for use. And to celebrate Earth Day, a group of fifth-graders will plant an herb garden, Gwinn said.

On a recent Wednesday, Outward Bound volunteers Markus Weise and Rosemary Naeger helped the children, including 9-year-old Jamie Gray, sift worm-filled compost, till crimson clover in preparation for planting seeds.

“When I was in 2nd grade, I didn’t know so many worms would be in the compost," Jamie said, recalling how she cringed at the creepy crawlers. "But when I saw the worms eating the compost, I thought it was so cool.”

Now she and her mother, a Parkside teacher, are thinking about planting their own vegetable garden at their home in Conyers. After all, the fourth-grader discovered she likes to eat red beets, potatoes and okra, noting "it's so cool to watch them grow."

The Parkside vegetable garden has helped involve parents in their kids' activities, Gwinn said. Parents of students such as 10-year-old Freedom Calloway sign up to water the plants during the summer break, giving the children and their families a sense of school pride, she believes.

“I like the vegetables because I like to eat," said Freedom, a fifth-grader who weeds the garden in his spare time. “I like that I can tell all of my friends that I actually grew what they’re eating.”

But it hasn't always been easy to get buy-in from teachers who are slammed with teach-to-test requirements, Gwinn said. Many feel time in the garden is time away from important test preparation, she said.

“It’s been a challenge. We’ve had obstacles. Not everyone believes this is important," she said. “There’s a real push right now for kids to score well on tests and this doesn’t fit directly into that data."

But for Gwinn, getting kids who might not otherwise have a chance to plant and grow a vegetable from seed has merit.

“It’s a complete learning tool. It's not just math and science, but also folklore and using reference skills with almanacs," she said. "It’s just not as easy to measure academic progress.”

Parkside Principal Phillip Luck said despite the weight of standardized testing results, the gardening program gives children a more well-rounded education.

"It's definitely a teaching tool and it gets the students thinking about their environment. It may not directly meet the standards on a test they take in the spring, but it's just as valuable," he said. "The kids you least suspect take interest in it and love it. Who knows what that will lead to in their future?"

Fourth-grade teacher Pelita Johnson said the gardening project easily ties in with her teaching.

"I like the correlation [of the garden] with what I’m teaching in class -- the life sciences and talking about producers, consumers and decomposers," she said. "I make the connection and the students see it as well."