School Gardens Bridge the Gap Between School and Community

Kristen Smeal -- Fourth graders Victor Kemp and William Markus saving fava beans at St. Philip Neri Garden.
Kristen Smeal -- Fourth graders Victor Kemp and William Markus saving fava beans at St. Philip Neri Garden.

School Gardens Bridge the Gap Between School and Community

During World War I, school gardens materialized as an effort to utilize idle land on urban and suburban school properties. Food was grown at schools for local community food security, to increase nutritional awareness, and to increase youth civic engagement. School gardens of today still engage the community by improving the school environment and the community in which they are located.

With a mild climate that allows for a 365-day growing season, it’s no surprise that more than half of Alameda’s public and private schools have a school-based gardening program. Most public school garden programs rely on parent volunteers, part-time garden docents, and teachers to administer the garden programs. Funding for school gardens is often limited to fundraising, grants, and the generosity of parents and parent-teacher associations.

Increased interaction with community members is an obvious benefit of school gardens. The Garden Science program at St. Philip Neri School (SPN) partners with community organizations such as the Alameda Backyard Growers (ABG) and local Scout Troops. Lessons about seed saving teach students the process of saving seeds and the benefits of doing so. To bring the lesson full-circle, seeds that are planted in the SPN garden, such as parsley, fennel, and fava beans, are harvested, packed, and distributed in the Alameda Backyard Growers’ (ABG) Free Seed Library. The seeds are spread widely amongst the community in this free seed sharing program. The garden is also used for Girl Scouts and Eagle Scouts badge and award earning experiences, as well as a supplemental meeting place for several organizations and groups.

In some cases, the community seems to arise out of caring for the school garden. At Love Elementary School, Garden Science teacher Ms. Bina says the group of parent, teacher, and student volunteers is so large that the garden is like a community within itself. Local community organizations often reach out ready to participate in school garden cleanup projects. The school garden also provides a place for local high school students to earn volunteer service hours and for parent groups to participate.

School gardens are intentional undertakings that take a great deal of dedication from parents, teachers, and the school to make them possible. Holly Johnson, ABG Vice President, recalls the passion it took to keep the school garden at Lum Elementary (now closed) going. The hose was often stolen from the school grounds, so Holly, a dedicated parent garden volunteer, dragged the hose from her house across the street to water during the summer months.

Funding can be a barrier to the startup and administration of school gardens programs. Wood Middle School Science teacher, Marci Nettles, who is passionate about creating a formal classroom for middle school students, is currently campaigning through GoFundMe. Donations are being collected at Nettle’s GoFundMe campaign: https://www.gofundme.com/f/create-an-outdoor-garden-classroom.

The school garden can be used for much more than just planting, harvesting, and eating. It can be a place for community building and bringing together civically responsible and environmentally conscious people of all ages.

Kristen Smeal serves as co-President of the Alameda Backyard Growers (ABG). She is also a Master Gardener and Garden Science teacher at St. Philip Neri.

ABG is dedicated to teaching our neighbors how to grow food. Visit www.alamedabackyardgrowers.org and join the mailing list to receive timely gardening information.

Pick up seasonal seeds from our Free Seed Libraries on Alameda Island at 2829 San Jose Ave., 305 Santa Clara Ave., and 1125 Morton St., and on Bay Farm Island at 16 Cove Road.

ABG’s Project Pick is always looking for fruit trees to pick and volunteers to help pick them so we can deliver more fresh fruit to the Alameda Food Bank. To sign up, email info@alamedabackyardgrowers.org.