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EDIBLE SCHOOLYARDS

WRITTEN BY ANN LINDEMANN
PHOTOS BY JEFF ROSS

In Reno-Tahoe, public school gardens are no longer a novel concept. During the last few years, many local K-12 schools have built spaces brimming with vegetables and fruits ripening in the warm western sun. Educators have learned that these gardens not only nurture critical food education and other skills, but they also create community. Read on to discover that knowledge is power.

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From left, Andrew Salas, 12; Colton Huber, 12; and Isabelle (Izzi) Holland, 16, at one of Reno High School's edible gardens
  
As public education funding dwindles and teachers struggle to cover core curriculum standards, is there room to grow? You bet, say enthusiastic and tireless advocates of school garden programs, which are quickly becoming integral components of K-12 life nationwide.

Renowned Chef Alice Waters led the charge 16 years ago when she commented that a Berkeley, Calif., elementary school that she passed each day "looked like no one cared about it." She teamed up with the school principal, and the Edible Schoolyard Project, which remains a template for schools nationwide, was born.

In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama directed the national spotlight to the dangers of childhood obesity and the benefits of school and community gardens. Today, school gardens are taking seed across America. California alone boasts some 4,000 school gardens, while public schools in Nevada are wasting no time shoring up appropriate resources, volunteer energy, and administrative buy-in to create their own precious patches of green.

Kerry Seymour, nutritional specialist for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, estimates there are about 34 public school garden sites in Washoe, Carson City, Lyon, Storey, and Humboldt counties in Nevada. She spearheaded a school garden program six years ago, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The curriculum, which is currently under peer review, is based on core education standards. She also sits on a variety of panels and committees whose goal is to increase access to healthy foods.

"The focus is on experiential learning," Seymour explains, "weekly exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables, experiences in basic gardening, building lifelong gardening skills, connection with the natural world, learning where food comes from, and respect for the environment."

School gardening is a great way to help children explore how food is grown and, in turn, motivate them to eat more healthy, organic veggies. And in the garden, important life lessons can be taught such as cooperation, teamwork, and patience.

But who knew that the particulars of picking and planting could infiltrate school curriculum from culinary arts and science to English, math, and business?

The following pages chronicle just a few of the local public schools and support organizations that are making a difference in our children's lives "inch by inch, row by row."

Garden Variety

Take a close look at Pine Middle School in Reno and you'll see evidence of big-time garden-variety school spirit.

Exuberant sunflowers and colorful, handcrafted birdhouses frame the garden with its carefully tended plants flourishing in the rows of raised beds. Science teacher and garden mastermind Mike Ismari points to a dozen well-worn shovels that are lined up like off-duty soldiers next to the potting shed.

"You can tell they get used," he notes with a hint of pride in his voice.

Indeed the fruits of the students' labors are everywhere. Ismari is the kind of teacher who presents an idea, discusses the appropriate tools and skills necessary, and then turns the kids loose.

"We are just now finishing the infrastructure and then it's game on," Ismari says of the three-year-old project. "The trick is to get the program integrated into the core standards and we are working on that — not only science, but math and English, too. I'd like to see this kind of experiential curriculum in all Northern Nevada schools."

For now, the garden is tended by the kids during a half-hour daily enrichment period and an after-school year-round garden club, which features highly regarded leadership positions.

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Scott Huber with Thomas Rossiter, 5, holding a frog from the garden

The produce — kale, chard, spinach, beans, squash, zucchini, carrots, onions, chives, tomatoes, pumpkins (more than 100 this year), watermelons, cucumbers, beets, turnips, rhubarb, and more — is sold at a weekly school farmers' market that runs from July through the first winter frost. Each year the club sells "apartment gardens," a collection of potted edible plants to community members.

Interestingly, in an area of Reno where graffiti is commonplace there is none to be found on the garden's structures.

"People just seem to have a reverence for growing things," Ismari says.

The garden is sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the school parent-teacher organization, and Server Technology Inc. in Reno. A 4-H Club framework also encourages students to learn home skills such as canning, preserving, plumbing, composting, and woodworking.

Sowing the Seeds

Three years ago, Reno High School science teacher Scott Huber wasn't looking to grow an extensive garden program. But like all things gardening related, it began with a seed.

"It all started with a small greenhouse with intentions to germinate native seeds and to participate in reseeding some fire-burned areas around Reno," Huber says. "From there it grew into a big local garden project."

Huber found that it wasn't feasible to have a garden on the school site so he got creative and found private landowners and the University of Nevada, Reno who were willing to help out. Now instead of one school garden there are three, roughly about 20,000 square feet total. The sites include two southwest Reno sites and a spot at the UNR Agricultural Experiment Station where the students use greenhouse space in cooperation with the Master Gardener program.

"All locations are donating the needed land, water, power, and equipment needed," Huber says. "(One of the southwest Reno sites) supports our small greenhouse and hoop house. These make a huge impact on our success."

Managing all three sites can be tricky as time is limited and cross-town transportation is necessary.

"I was able to develop a new field lab class so all students enrolled in AP Environmental Science also have another period with me for lab," he explains. "This gives us two class periods and plenty of time to travel to our field locations."

Huber keeps things relatively informal during these lab periods as evidenced by one such session in June. After learning the intricacies of potato planting from Huber at the southwest Reno site, a couple dozen teenagers got to work.

Veteran Reno High gardener Isabelle (Izzi) Holland, a senior, is quick to share her enthusiasm for the program.

"This class really stands out for me," Holland says. "You learn so much more when it's hands-on."

Like other school programs, Huber struggles during harvest times. To that end, kids volunteer to tend the gardens two evenings a week. Come August, produce (from tomatoes to pumpkins) will be picked Thursday and sold every Friday at a school farmers' market. Huber and his students also hold a yearly plant sale in May during the Moms on the Run event held at Reno High School and at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op annual plant sale in May that helps generate much-needed funds. The program donates produce to local food banks and needy families at the school.

Sensory Experience

Hug High School culinary arts teacher Wayne Tuma doesn't have to look far to find foodie inspiration. He needs only to step outside his classroom to smell, feel, and taste his next lesson plan. It may be a tasty parsnip muffin, a pasta dish redolent in fresh tomatoes and garlic, or sublime elderberry syrup.

"I was hired to teach culinary arts not horticulture, but I think it's important for the students to see the whole cycle of how food is grown within this garden," Tuma explains. "Each year that the kids are in the program, they seem to become a little more observant about what's going on out here. By the third year, I can ask a student to go out and bring back enough chard for 25 servings."

The word garden doesn't seem quite appropriate in the case of Hug High School. Bordering a huge concrete slab that is used for basketball practice, marching band drills, and ROTC maneuvers, the entire project is about 5,000 square feet.

Launched in 2010, the garden is funded by Truckee Meadows Water Authority. Lora Rose Robb, a resource planner, says TMWA's mission includes not only providing water to the area, but also educating and communicating about water use.

"The garden at Hug High serves as a water conservation demonstration garden and helps educate our customers on the opportunities and challenges of gardening," she explains.

Landscaper Tom Stille of River School Farm was contracted to develop and maintain a garden that was water savvy. Stille has done just that and more. A whopping 23,000 square feet of water-needy grass were removed and replaced by a drip-irrigated vegetable garden and a whole section was devoted to native species and food forest areas featuring fruit trees.

"Each year the garden is going to take less and less maintenance and the students will be responsible," Stille says.

With TMWA funding, Stille will develop a maintenance plan that will allow the garden to be maintained by the school by next fall (2013.) In partnership with Urban Roots Garden Classrooms, TMWA also is funding two school garden coordinators to assist the teachers, students, and parents with various activities and projects in the food-producing areas of the garden.

Meanwhile, the garden has been certified by the Nevada Department of Agriculture, which means the produce it grows can be sold to local restaurants and farmers' markets.

Fostering an Awakening

"How lucky are we to have a garden at our school because not a lot of schools do?" writes Rita Cannan Elementary School in Reno fifth-grader Adriana Caamal. "My favorite part about the garden is when we get to enjoy all the delicious fruits such as strawberries, apples, and (my favorite) watermelon. They are so sweet and juicy — they taste like heaven."

This is the kind of garden love that drives Sheri Boyden, a University of California, Berkeley-educated nutritionist and mother of three who was so caught up in the Alice Waters schoolyard garden movement that she vowed to continue the momentum in Reno.

In 2009 she launched With My Own Two Hands, a nonprofit organization with a mission to "foster an awakening to the pleasure of eating nutritiously and caring for the environment through the creation of school gardens." Today, WMOTH has launched gardens at two Reno public schools.

Boyden says she's observed that this nurturing garden mentality is especially effective with children with special needs and behavioral issues such as those at Sarah Winnemucca Elementary School in Reno. Additionally, children at at-risk schools such as Rita Cannan also benefit from a schoolyard garden awakening.

"These are places where children may not have their own yard or even have dirt to play in," Boyden explains. "And now when these kids see a tomato they are more apt to try it because they've experienced the joy of eating one straight off the vine with juice running down their chin."

A Broader View

The Healthy Communities Coalition of Nevada's Lyon and Storey counties has taken a broader view than most on the potential impact of schoolyard gardens. Thanks to this organization and a slew of volunteers, there are now school gardens and hoop houses in Springs Elementary, Yerington Elementary, Smith Valley, and all Dayton school.

The group also has figured out a mentoring program that takes the heavy lifting away from time-strapped adults.

"Our school gardens have trained teen interns who, in turn, teach younger students," says Quest Lakes, Healthy Communities Coalition community task force coordinator. Lakes adds that the school gardens fit into the organization's mission to create a regional food system, or healthy food hub.

Garden Life Support

Dedicated to "changing the way kids eat and learn," leaders of Urban Roots Garden Classrooms in Reno act as ringleaders, mentors, and see-the-big-picture collaborators for a fortunate clutch of Northern Nevada public and private schools.

"Our goal is to help make these gardens sustainable," says Executive Director Jeff Bryant. "The key to success is taking the burden off the teachers and providing support in the administration of the program."

The nonprofit foundation launched the Garden Habitat Program this year as a way to assist area school educators intent on establishing and ultimately maintaining garden programs. Once accepted, these school leaders are guided by the collective expertise of Urban Roots; school sites are surveyed and plans commence. Two parent school garden coordinators partner with Urban Roots' education specialists who are adept at integrating dirt-under-your-nails experiences into core curriculum.

Before ringing the garden school bell, the group's organizers did some important prep work setting up a farm and class space on West Fourth Street in Reno. This is where teachers and parent volunteers get schooling on everything from vegetable planting to ideas for curriculum and beyond.

This year, Washoe County School District public school participants include Hug High, Mt. Rose Elementary School, Reed High School, Wooster High School, Pleasant Valley Elementary School, and Sierra Vista Elementary School.

According to Bryant, low-income school Sierra Vista established a garden a few years back. An important partner fell by the wayside and the school found itself without support. This is just the kind of scenario that Urban Roots had in mind when it launched its new program, Bryant says.

"(It's an) already established garden, but lacking the community needed to make it thrive," he explains. "We hope to assist Sierra Vista in building the support system it needs, as well as integrating garden education into the classroom at multiple levels."

Sustaining Enthusiasm

Schoolyard garden programs are popping up throughout our region. Organizers say the challenges are many, from finding funding to securing garden maintenance after the flame of the great idea dies down. Aligning the programs with core curriculum standards is key to the success of these programs, as is fundraising to replenish supplies.

Weather also is a challenge in Lake Tahoe and Truckee, where public schools struggle with an abbreviated growing season. One South Lake Tahoe educator lamented the issue, but said that school district leaders are concentrating on native species landscaping at this point.

In North Tahoe, the struggles are similar and one grassroots organization is busy engineering four-season green grow domes (see story on page XXX) designed to withstand high Sierra weather and also meet stringent public school facility standards.

Organizer Susie Sutphin admits there will be lots of regulatory hoops to jump through but it will be "totally worth it when we get there."

In the end, it seems that wherever the school site may be, the best fertilizer is the living and breathing variety. And, fortunately in our region, positive, creative human energy is abundant.

"We'd like to have a garden in every public school within the Washoe County School District," Sheri Boyden says, "and to achieve this we must create sustained enthusiasm for this movement."

Full disclosure: Lake Tahoe-based writer Ann Lindemann received some pretty tasty perks while researching this story. Among them were three sublime golden raspberries plucked from a Hug High School bush and a clutch of crisp carrots pulled straight out of the fertile Pine Middle School garden soil.

Resources

• UNCE Fact Sheet Growing A School Garden

Www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ho/2010/sp1014.pdf

• Healthy Communities: www.Healthycomm.org

• With My Own Two Hands: 775-232-3615

• Urban Roots Garden Habitat Program: www.Urgc.org/home/for-schools

• River School Farm: www.Riverschoolfarm.org

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