Learning and Growing Through the UA’s School Garden Program

The sight of four-year-olds voluntarily eating lettuce is a bit startling. Yet, there they were — a group of preschoolers, in their colorful gardening boots and sun hats, pulling lettuce out of the dirt and plopping it in their mouths. The location: Ochoa Elementary School, one of four schools where UA students are helping teachers with their school gardens, as part of the UA School Garden Program.

The aim of the School Garden Program is to enable Tucson teachers to develop and sustain school gardens and use them as an experiential learning tool, one that connects students to their local environments as well as to the culture, science, and politics of food. The UA partners with the Tucson Community Food Bank (TCFB), who’s Community Food Resource Center helps schools and community organizations that service low-income communities establish gardens on-site.

“A school garden is an innovative and powerful educational tool,” said Sallie Marston, professor in the School of Geography and Development (SGD) and co-manager of the School Garden Program. “These children are physically involved in the garden in ways that teach them all kinds of stuff about soil, water, the hydrological cycle, pest control, intermixing plant varieties, you name it.”

The UA’s involvement with the School Garden Program actually originated with a UA student. When Morgan Apicella was an undergraduate (he’s now a UA graduate student), he was volunteering with the TCFB and asked Marston if he could do an independent study project by working with Project More High School on their school garden. With Appicella’s work at Project More going well, the TCFB asked if the UA could provide more students to help in other schools, and Marston ended up developing the School Garden Internship with Sarah Moore, an assistant professor in SGD.

In spring 2010, the two piloted the project with six students in just two schools. This spring, they have 15 students in four schools — Borton Primary Magnet School, Davis Elementary Bilingual Magnet School, Manzo Elementary School, and Ochoa Elementary School.

University students and faculty from three colleges are now involved: College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, for their expertise in the social science of food issues; the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) for their expertise in the science of food production; and the College of Education for their expertise in teacher education.

The UA interns assist teachers and students with maintaining school gardens, as well as preparing foods and helping teachers teach about the environment for growing food, and food’s relationship to culture, politics and social life. They are also developing curricular materials – on nutrition, the ecological context of food production, and food histories, geographies, and politics – that are made available to Tucson educators on a website.

“The students are working to enable an environmental consciousness, a respect for food, and a respect for sustainable food production among young people,” said Marston.

“The UA students are able to develop leadership skills, learn how to work with students in a mentoring role, and contribute to the Tucson community by helping these gardening programs be successful,” said Zotero Citlalcoatl, the community garden coordinator for TCFB. “On the school side, the garden programs benefit from extra hands on deck, the fact that their classes are able to establish a mentoring relationship with the UA students, and there is the extra benefit that the UA interns are positive role models for the kids.”

Two Schools
Warmth and kindness permeates the preschool classroom (the “Hopes and Dreams” Room”) at Ochoa Elementary School – from the cozy reading corner to the faux fireplace to the pictures of the children’s families prominently displayed. At the heart of it all is the garden. 

Paula McPheeters is the teacher of the PACE (Parent and Child Education) preschool at Ochoa, which is located in South Tucson. She speaks passionately about the garden and what it teaches the children and families. To her, the garden fits in perfectly with her commitment to providing authentic, purposeful learning.

“It’s so much more than a garden project. It’s planting seeds, but it’s also planting ideas. It’s caring for plants, but it’s also caring for families,” said McPheeters. “You’re building relationships out in the garden, and I really have found that it is something transformational for children, families, teachers and interns.”

The commitment of the families is evident, as several parents lend a hand on a warm, Friday morning. McPheeters says that even in the summer when school is not in session, parents and grandparents sign up to tend to the garden in the hot sun.

“Miss Paula has a quote on her wall that education is not a preparation for life; it’s life itself,” said Maria Molina, the mother of Sewailo. “Here the kids learn those basic things. Being able to plant a seed and nuture it, and watch it grow. That’s what it’s all about. They learn about patience and having responsibility and creating and working in a community.”

Ninety-eight percent of the children at Ochoa qualify for free or reduced lunch. This garden not only gives these families access to organic vegetables, it also allows them to share their bounty with those less fortunate. The children regularly collect cans and donate part of their produce to the Casa Maria soup kitchen.

Amy Mellor, a UA student in Latin American studies and plant sciences, works at Ochoa more than the internship requires. “I love it. I come here every day. You can’t keep me away from here… I have come away with much more than I have provided.”

Mellor witnesses the love these children have for the garden. “Most everyone wants to water or put on rubber boots and chop up compost from breakfast. My friend Jesus constantly asks me if we can plant more seeds. Hummingbirds and insects are reasons to crowd around and stare in wonder. When we cook …four and five year olds can completely cook a healthy, nearly gourmet lunch.”

Annie Silverman took the School Garden Internship course last spring and graduated from the UA with a major in Latin American studies this past December, and yet she still volunteers at Ochoa every week. 

She said that the kids learn so much from the garden, including that “dirts’s cool! They are not intimidated by many of the things most children are intimidated by, like compost and worms. It’s normalizing the origins of food for them. And it encourages them to broaden their horizons and eat turnips that they just pulled from the garden.”

McPheeters is grateful for the help of the UA interns. “The children, families and I find their passion contagious,” she said.

Located closer to the University, in the Barrio Hollywood neighborhood, is Manzo Elementary. Although Manzo is new to the UA Garden Program, it is at the forefront of incorporating desert ecology into school grounds, thanks to the dedication of school counselor Moses Thompson.

Thompson started at Manzo five years ago and began writing grants to develop a vacant lot across the street from the school, which was being used as a dumping ground for trash. With the aid of his army of elementary school kids, Thompson transformed the lot into a desert biome – a Native plant habitat. Thompson and the students later added rain water harvesting and a desert tortoise habitat.

This semester, the students are building a vegetable garden in partnership with the National Park Foundation. For Thompson, the garden is not just about nutrition, it’s also about enthnobotany, so he has decided to plant a traditional Hohokam garden.

Lana Idriss, a UA graduate student in landscape architecture, and Alexis Arizpe, a UA graduate student in the School of Natural Resources — both are Americorp members as well as enrolled in the School Garden Internship —  have been participating in the ecology and garden program at Manzo since fall.

“It’s funny how often Moses takes kids out there [to the garden] who don’t get along,” says Arizpe. “When they have to dig a hole together, they forget about it [the disagreement] pretty quickly.”

Thompson concurs that his counseling revolves around the therapeutic benefits of the garden.

“If someone comes to me with a crisis, we grab a watering can, grab a shovel, and we go out into the garden and resolve the conflict,” said Thompson. “And for kids who are struggling to fit in, kids who are victims of bullying or who are bullying, I try to create cohesive groups, which forces them to go out and cooperate.”

Many of the other teachers at Manzo incorporate the garden into their curriculum, using it as a vehicle to teach physical fitness, art, math, reading, and science.

And for the school kids, the garden is a big hit.

“The students don’t even want to eat lunch,” said Idriss. “They beg to go to the garden.”

Looking Forward
Marston and Moore plan to enroll 25-30 student interns in Tucson schools next fall. They’re also working to find a way to help teachers receive more formal training on school gardens.

The School Garden Program recently received a boost from a grant from the UA Sustainability Fund. These monies will enable Marston and Moore to hire a part-time field coordinator, who will help place the growing number of interns in Tucson schools affiliated with the TCFB and wishing to start new gardens or maintain/expand the ones they have. 

Marston is quick to give the bulk of the credit for the growing success of this program to interns, the teachers in the schools, and the Community Food Bank.

“The teachers and the interns are the heroes of this story…As instructors, we’re not really that big a deal. All we are really doing is giving UA students the fundamentals to be useful and ensuring that they have an experience that is educational for them as well. It’s a two-way experience: Our students learn a lot and the Tucson teachers get the support they need to have a garden for their students. Everyone gets something out of it.”

Contacts:  Sallie Marston, marston@email.arizona.edu; Sarah Moore, samoore@email.arizona.edu, School of Geography and Development