Is there a formula for creating a successful school garden program? All of us who are interested in knowing what it takes to deliver green education to our children would be wise to ask questions of those who have been successful in accomplishing this goal.
In March of 2016, 14 members of the Slow Food Prescott chapter took a field trip to Tucson, AZ to learn more about their school garden initiatives and community partnerships. As a chair of Slow Food Prescott’s school garden-working group, my intention for this trip to Manzo Elementary, Borton Elementary, Pueblo Gardens Elementary, and the Watershed Management Group in Tucson, AZ was to act as an investigative journalist. The trip itself was a collaborative exercise between several parties, a key ingredient in any school garden program. We also learned a great deal about their methods. The only component more impactful to this formula than their willingness to collaborate and utilize university level science at the grade school level was their vision.
All of us who are proud to wave the banner of school gardens have embraced this vision to change our current standard curriculum. Any school that successfully implements a green educational program accomplishes this goal when the school administration owns this vision. At Manzo, we learned how a strong parent-teacher base can, over 10 years time, influence administration. But think of how much easier it would be if this level of support was initiated from the top down instead of from the bottom up. Rather than giving children a worldview focusing on differences that stand in our way, Manzo Elementary has used their challenges as a learning tool to teach how a singular, unified, community voice has the power to initiate change.
You might be thinking that Tucson, AZ has quite a different political climate than the one you live in; not everyone is willing to set saide their differences and embrace this vision of change for our children’s future. To that I say, reach out beyond your area and draw from the experience of others who have already overcome and endured these same challenges. The tour given at Pueblo Gardens was led by their Principal. Even he expressed difficulty obtaining certain necessary tools such as a water station and drinking fountain in their school garden area. One day when their Superintendent happened to come for a visit, he asked for a drink in the hot Tucson sun and well, let’s just say they had their watering station within a week’s time.
Moses Thompson, University of Arizona’s School Garden Coordinator, stated the secret of Manzo’s success was not, as everyone may think, to have one large centralized garden but to have smaller, microcosm-style learning areas right outside the classroom door, such as vermiculture and ethnobiology, as those prove to be a more efficient tool for education. Read more about student engagement through the University of Arizona Community and School Garden Program.
The water catchment system, which supplies their entire garden watering needs, was made possible by the collaboration with the Watershed Management Group. The city water in Tucson? AZ is slightly alkaline and, as such, is a disadvantage for nutrient uptake by the plants, whereas rainwater, which is slightly acidic, ensures plant nutrition. However, the aquaculture component of their greenhouse system could not tolerate the acidity of rainwater so city water needed to be used in their tilapia fish tank. When harvested, the fish were submerged in ice water (a form of euthanasia) and again right after cleaning, meeting the standards set in place by the County Health Department.
The funding at Manzo began with car washes and over the years progressed to grants from Home Depot, Lowes, and the USDA. The Tucson Community Food Bank helped a great deal by coordinating with different agencies and helped in the certification process in order for Manzo to take part in a community farmers market. The school raises chickens and sells what they produce.
It doesn’t really matter what issues stand in the way of change. What matters most is our willingness to work together under a common vision with a unified voice. The majority of people in the world today may resist change because many cultures in our world lack accountability. But there are also those who are visionaries, who see the forest for the trees and even though they may need to work within a community subject to a political climate in order to advance their goals, the prize is what pulls them in a common direction. In the words of Carlo Patrini, “ Our children are the future stewards of the Earth but they cannot take care of her if they do not know how.”