For School Garden Advocates, a Path Strewn with Obstacles (Part 2/2)
By Rory Linnane | Tue, 05/10/2011 - 5:55pm
When it comes time to plant new peas at the Lapham Elementary School garden this year, there might not be anyone there to do it.
Jim Hansen, who for five years has coordinated the garden and introduced hundreds of students to the soil, plants and critters, might not be able to continue working at Lapham if his position is defunded.
Like most school garden initiatives, Hansen’s position is tenuous, dependent on funding from parent groups and grants.
“Trying to run any kind of project on soft money, I think, is really dicey,” he said.
Many school gardens in Madison grow on the backs of parent volunteer forces, climbing trellises of grants and donations that could snap at any moment. That’s why advocates are digging for more long-term models to sustain school gardens.
Last spring and fall he spent two days per week in the garden, encouraging teachers to bring their classes there as an extra co-curricular class, like music, gym and art.
Students spent the first five minutes of their garden time sitting in a circle, reviewing the day’s activities and rules: don’t run no matter how fast you want to get somewhere, and always discuss conflicts without fighting.
Then Hansen would give the students a list of activities to choose from.
“Activities might include digging in a bed, watering, or spreading woodchips. And I would be out there doing my thing and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go plant some tomatoes,’” Hansen said. “It’s a free-choice environment with structure.”
This year, as spring thaws the Lapham grounds, Hansen said his zeal for sustaining the garden is waning. If the garden doesn’t receive the Willy St. grant, Hansen will not be able to devote as much time to it. Even if the school does get the grant, Hansen said he might have to choose a more stable and better-paying job.
“I just ran out of time,” Hansen said. “Other opportunities are coming my way and I’ve really got to get some real employment happening because my kids are getting older.”
Hansen’s problem is not unique. School garden advocates face a continual battle to find the funding and volunteers necessary to continue each season. Simply starting a school garden is often a privilege in itself, generally a reward for time invested by parent volunteers.
“It’s usually networks of people that pull something like that off,” said Ken Swift, a teacher at Lapham who started the garden there 13 years ago. “I was a staff member being paid to do my job, but that kind of effort is way beyond my job or what most people would be willing to do. It takes people who are really dedicated and have the bite and will to do it.”
That first step is often out of the picture for Madison schools that lack volunteers.
“Schools that are in high-poverty neighborhoods may not have the parents that are able to put in the time,” Swift said. “It’s really tough.”
Megan Cain, a program manager at Community GroundWorks who has helped with multiple youth garden efforts, said school gardens tend to start in middle to upper-class neighborhoods.
However, organizations like Community GroundWorks and the Goodman Community Center help make gardening accessible to more youth. Both organizations run youth gardens off school property that students from any school can visit.
The Goodman Community Center’s program, called TeenWorks, puts teenagers and young adults to work on projects around the center, including maintaining the garden.
Derrick McDaniel, 21, has worked for TeenWorks for two years. He works in the rec room and cleans the center, but his favorite part is working with plants and building structures to help the plants grow.
“I just love how the plants grow naturally,” he said. “I love how they get so huge from just a seed.”
Community GroundWorks and the Goodman Community Center also help operate the East High Youth Farm, providing funding and staff support. Last year the farm donated 3,600 pounds of produce to the Goodman food pantry.
Soon to enter its third season, the quarteracre garden on East High School property hosts free field trips for many Madison schools. In the spring and fall, students at East and next-door Kennedy Elementary use the garden regularly.
Cain, who helped start the garden with a grant through the school district, coordinates its use. While many other school gardens depend on parent volunteers, Cain said parent visitors there are rare.
“Ours is a unique partnership because we are a non-profit that really supports the garden,” Cain said. “I think they maybe they could have started a garden without us, but it wouldn’t be as big of a program as it is.”
Cain thinks public and private partnerships as the most sustainable and attainable future for school gardens because they allow schools to participate without requiring school budget funds or volunteers. Ideally, she envisions these partnerships employing teachers whose primary focus would be the garden.
“Teachers are really busy,” she said. “It’s hard for them to have the energy to get together a new garden curriculum.”
Cain said eventually she would like to start partnerships with other schools, but for now she is focused on improving the farm at East High School.
Other school garden advocates have their own ideas for how to strengthen their movement. They network with one another, brainstorm ideas and, increasingly, find organizations to support them.
Rachel Martin, who works as a program manager at Sustain Dane, is forming an Outdoor Classroom Coalition to act as a support network for anyone trying to start or maintain a youth garden in the Madison area.
“I thought, let’s bring all these wonderful passionate people together and work together with one voice,” said Martin, who, as a parent volunteer, helped start a garden at Midvale Elementary.
With the coalition just starting to take shape, Martin hopes it will help school gardens connect to resources, information and funding, possibly acting as a sort of lobbying group for school gardens in the district and state.
Hansen also has some ideas for making school gardens successful. He believes the future is in marketing products from youth gardens to sell, allowing the garden to be self-sustaining, independent from grants or school budgets.
Hansen has been collecting daffodil bulbs for years and plans to sell them this fall to raise money for the garden. Despite the uncertainty of his employment, Hansen isn’t ready to give up on the garden. He is determined to do what he can while he still has time.
“It’s the kind of thing where I just have to stop talking about it and just keep picking away on the daffodils,” he said.
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