Something Good Is Sprouting Up In The School Yard

Story by Jade Eckardt

Photos by Kirk Surry

“My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece”
Claude Monet

A resurgence of school gardens in Hawai‘i isn’t just connecting students with the joy of getting dirty. The growing renaissance of outdoor learning is bringing a holistic awareness of health and nutrition to students and their families. What the kids learn at school translates into the home, where long-term changes can happen.

School gardens are not a new idea in the Hawaiian Islands. Until the late 1960s, they were common in Hawaii schools. Yet somehow, student grown gardens became far and few between, for decades. “I’ve spoken with so many kupuna [elders] who remember working in their school gardens, bringing the harvest to the cafeteria, and eating what they grew,”says Nancy Redfeather, Director of the Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network.

In the last decade, classrooms in the form of school gardens have been rebuilt to inspire future farmers, hands on learning, and nutrition. According to a 2012 report on school gardens in Hawai‘i, the state boasts 168 campus gardens involving 21,577 students and 830 teachers on 30 acres of land. Redfeather says that Hawai‘i Island has more school garden teachers than any other island, while 96 percent of Big Island schools are home to a learning garden.

For decades, student-run gardens were typically implemented at the local level. Today there’s a national movement to get students growing their own fruits and vegetables. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is inspiring schools to plant food through its Farm to School Program, which includes research, training, technical assistance, and grants.

“They’re really trying to reconnect kids with the land and the source of food,”says Redfeather.

Thanks to a new program called Hawai‘i FoodCorps, a national AmeriCorps program that addresses childhood obesity and food insecurity in underserved communities, Hawai‘i is experiencing an influx of school garden teachers. The Big Island’s Kohala Center, a non-profit, community-based center for research, conservation, and education, has been chosen to be the Hawai‘i host site for the program.

In late 2013, FoodCorps service members were chosen to work in eight schools on four islands. Selected college graduates are dedicating one year of full-time public service in school food systems, where they will expand hands-on nutrition education programs, build and tend school gardens, and help bring high-quality, locally produced foods into schools.

Redfeather, who is also the program’s host site supervisor, says eight positions were filled out of over 1,000 applications. “We have to raise up the quality of school lunches, and this program is dedicated to change,”she says.

But today, although an ever-growing number of schools throughout the islands are offering up space for gardens, eating the harvest isn’t as simple as a carrying it from the garden to the cafeteria kitchen.

Students do get opportunities to reap what they sow, but Department of Education (DOE) standards prevent the produce from being served in the cafeteria. It takes some creativity to find ways to serve the harvest. Organizations like Grow Some Good on Maui have found fun ways for students to prepare, cook, and eat what they grow.

“We do a pop up café in the school garden. The kids harvest the produce, and are then assigned to a kid-friendly work station at a harvest festival,”says Kirk Surry, co-founder of the nearly seven-year-old organization that works with 2,500 students across seven different Maui schools. He says that chefs from notable Maui restaurants assist the young farmers in creating a meal for everyone to enjoy.

‘Aina in Schools, a branch of the Kokua Hawai‘i Foundation, has found a unique way for students to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The raw ingredients come from the fifth grade Three Sisters Garden, a Native American inspired bed composed of squash, beans and corn. “At the end of the unit the students harvest it all and prepare a stew for everyone,”says McKinney.

Although the focus may be on gardens, students learn more than just how to plant and pick vegetables. The Grow Some Good program teaches students holistic farming techniques. “It’s all organic and sustainable farming methods,”explains Surry. “We also make our own compost, do permaculture at many sites, and make bokashi, a compost made with beneficial micro-organisms.

On O‘ahu, students participate in six components of a garden curriculum, spanning kindergarten through sixth grade with ‘Aina in Schools. According to Natalie McKinney, Director of Program Development, grades K, 1, 4, and 5 focus on garden-based lessons, grade 3 learns to compost, and grades 2 and 6 gain nutrition education. ‘Aina in Schools currently has 15 participating schools in their farm-to-school program.

Redfeather notes that hands-on learning helps students retain and apply concepts, and that lessons in campus gardens encompass many different academic subjects. Says McKinney, “Everyone at the school partakes in the garden in one way or another, the administration, the custodial crew, and the cafeteria workers.”

For Surry, the satisfaction comes from watching children become genuinely thrilled in working outdoors with nature, something that’s becoming increasingly hard to instill in youth since the emergence of iPads, video games, and social media. He recognizes that the earlier children get involved, the more genuine their interest is.

“It’s remarkable to see the difference between kids who started in preschool at an age when gardening is magical and full of wonder; they stay engaged. Kids who start a lot later and have never seen organics or eaten many vegetables, it’s tougher to get them into it.”

While student gardeners will someday contribute to a food sustainable future, Surry says the most inspiring part of his job is watching children become more nutrition conscious.

He says the transition some children make is nothing short of amazing. “We’ve watched kids go from not knowing how to peel a banana, to being able to identify heirloom tomatoes, and different kinds of beans, eggplants, and other vegetables.”

This is where Hawai‘i school gardens have a positive effect on a level much deeper than the soil they’re working with. A program that opens children’s eyes to the beauty of healthy, organic food is life changing in a state where approximately one third of children are obese or overweight.

“It’s amazing what a kid can do,”says Surry. “It’s not just about the future, it’s about right now. These kids go home and tell parents what they did in school and ask for homemade smoothies with kale. Then the parents show up and ask us what kale is, and later go and get some. The kids are setting an example that the adults learn to follow.”
Redfeather also sees the long-term affects of students becoming passionate about gardening. She says, “Anything these children grow, they will eat. It’s completely changing the future of food for them.”