Turning soil, pulling weeds, and harvesting cabbage and beets sounds like tough work for middle and high school kids. And at first it is, says Abby Jaramillo, teacher and cofounder of Urban Sprouts, a school garden program at four low-income schools in San Francisco.
The nonprofit, which Jaramillo and another teacher launched in 2004, aims to help students develop science skills, environmental awareness, and healthy lifestyles. It’s one of a growing number of such programs across the country; California recently went so far as to allocate $15 million for grants to support school gardens.
Jaramillo’s students live in neighborhoods where fresh food and green space are scarce and fast food restaurants outnumber grocery stores. “The kids literally come to school with bags of hot Cheetos and 32-ounce bottles of Coke,” she says. “They come to us thinking vegetables are gross, dirt is gross, worms are gross.” Though some are initially scared of the insects and turned off by the dirt, most are eager to try something new.
Urban Sprouts’ classes, at two middle schools and two high schools, include hands-on experiments such as soil testing, flower-and-seed dissection, tastings of fresh or dried produce, and work in the garden. Several times a year, students cook the vegetables they grow, and they occasionally make salads for their entire schools.
Program evaluations show that kids eat more vegetables as a result of the classes. “We’ll have students say they went home and talked to their parents and now they’re eating differently,” Jaramillo says.
She adds that the program’s benefits go beyond nutrition. Some students get so hooked on gardening that they bring home seeds, potted plants, or worm bins for composting. Last year, after shootings near one of the middle schools, students seemed calmed by their work in the garden, as though it had a therapeutic benefit. This is especially apparent with Jaramillo’s special education students, many of whom have emotional control issues. “They get outside,” she says, “and they feel successful.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Growing Vegetable Lovers