In the last few years, having a garden on the grounds has become a favorite asset at many schools. Particularly in urban areas, a patch producing vegetables and herbs gives students insight into an assortment of lessons, from basic biology and food production to nutrition.
At Peachtree Charter Middle in Dunwoody, seventh-grade life sciences teacher Anne Nancy Bustamante has been tapping onto those lessons for five years. And she’s also found a way to make the school’s garden a community outreach project.
“We started talking about a garden in 2011 when a parent volunteer brought us the idea,” said Bustamante, who has been part of the Peachtree faculty for 15 years. “Now, they’ve become the ‘in’ thing to have.”
In 2012, with the support of the school community, volunteers pitched in with a local Boy Scout troop to build eight raised beds and fill them with soil. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the program took off after parent Tina Wilkinson suggested planting sweet potatoes.
“The first year, we didn’t have much luck,” said Bustamante. “But then Tina came in and took us through the process, showing us how to start them in water to get them to grow branches and how to put those branches in water to grow roots. We wound up having to put them in the library - one of the few really sunny spots - to get them to grow.”
The crop also provided opportunities to conduct experiments and to compare the traditional growth process to plants the students nurture in the school’s hydroponics system. And it gave them the chance to dig in the dirt by planting the branches in the spring. Members of the Environmental Club volunteered to water them over the breaks and summer vacation. By the fall, sweet potatoes were spilling out of their plots.
“We spent one day picking them, and we had enough work for five classes of seventh graders,” said Bustamante with a laugh. “For them, it was like hunting Easter eggs.”
Last fall, the school found itself with bumper crop of potatoes, even after sharing them with members of the school community. As chance would have it, the school sits across the street from Malachi’s Storehouse, an outreach program of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church. Each Wednesday afternoon, the church opens its doors to the community’s neediest residents for a hot meal and groceries to-go. Bustamante saw an opportunity.
“We reached out to them, and they were thrilled about getting sweet potatoes,” she said. “I think I filled up the trunk of my VW Beetle five times.”
Kathy Malcolm Hall, executive director of the 25-year-old Malachi’s Storehouse, said the sweet potatoes go a long way toward feeding the 765 people the outreach serves weekly.
“Fads in food come and go, but a sweet potato will get you far in terms of nutrition,” she said. “We’re very happy to have the school as a partner. In fact, I’ve been nudging them to make a field trip.”
From the last fall harvest, students also donated three baskets of lettuce as well as tons of sweet potatoes.
“This past year was our best ever,” said Bustamante. “Everything just grew like crazy. And the kids know they’re making a difference by sharing with others. One of them just told me, ‘My heart feels so good that I’m feeding other kids.’ “