Three questions with: Mike Metallo, president of NGA

To celebrate Earth Day this week, students from Whitefoord Elementary in Atlanta planted seeds for a new type of learning program: a vegetable garden.

The school recently received a $1,000 grant from the Welch's Harvest Grant program, which partnered with the National Gardening Association and Scholastic to award grants to schools eager to implement gardens into their teaching curriculums. Mike Metallo, president of the NGA, joined Food Network's Alton Brown this week to help install Whitefoord's garden. We chatted with Metallo about the gardening initiative and finding power in growing your own food.

Q: What is the Welch's Harvest Program?

A: Welch's feels very strongly about the idea of taking ownership over your food. They got ahold of Scholastic and the National Gardening Association and said they wanted to do something that would promote the idea of kids understanding where their food comes from and of growing your own food and eating nutritiously.  Scholastic, [which] was able to do a really broad marketing campaign, and the NGA, which is focused on youth gardening programs specifically in schools, made a really good team in terms of rolling out these grants to needy children and schools across the country.

Q: How did you choose the recipients of the grants?

A: We need to know there is an advocate at the school that believes in the principles of growing food, and is willing to work with children to teach them where their food comes from. We’re also looking for a curriculum that ... uses the garden setting to teach basic concepts, such as health, nutrition, vitamins, minerals, plant processes and composting, and the idea of sun and rain and water and how all of these things go together in a farming environment. We were looking for candidates that show a well-rounded understanding of how to use a garden as a teaching tool and basically transform book knowledge into experiential knowledge. The other thing about school gardening programs that I love to talk about is it’s a great equalizer, especially for kids who are not able to thrive in a classroom setting. Kids who are challenging in a classroom become leaders in a garden.

Q: Why is school-based gardening the rage now, when it was virtually absent the past few decades?

A: That’s a really interesting question and it probably has way too long of an answer. The NGA has its roots in community gardening in the 1970s -- the whole hippie movement of people getting back to the earth. But back in the [1980s and 1990s], people were not as focused on where food came from. Urbanization was big and technology was at the forefront. It was the Nintendo generation. Now there's a huge shift. Alton Brown was talking about how empowering it is to grow your own food. It really is a very true statement. If you want power over your life, one of the things that gives you power is to sustain yourself and know you can grow something.