Blossoming into a sustainable school garden

Posted: Tuesday, November 29th 2016

photo of kids in the garden, adult and student in garden

The school garden at Sherman Elementary School is nothing short of an oasis.  There are butterflies and fruit trees, moist soil and vibrant flowers, and thriving vegetable plants.  This little lot full of blooming life stands distinct among the surrounding limited healthy food options that students must navigate when not at school.

While in the garden, students get to “learn about gardening, eat fresh food, and appreciate the natural environment,” says school garden coordinator Christina Abuelo.

Since 2009, Abuelo has worked collaboratively with fellow parents, teachers, community members, local organizations, and school staff to gradually build the school garden infrastructure and accompanying weekly Garden Club into what they are today.  The Sherman Garden Team in particular, chaired by the school’s speech pathologist Juliette Fuentes, has been a steadfast source of support and guidance.

The bountiful garden has transformed a vacant rundown area on school property into an inviting space that now boasts numerous raised garden beds and a wide variety of edible plants such as rainbow chard, tomatoes, corn, basil, carrots, radishes, dino kale, beets, celery, and more.

Garden Club meets on Friday afternoons, and functions as an afterschool enrichment program that welcomes students and parents alike.  Students rotate through multiple stations to learn about growing and cooking healthy food.  Professional garden educators and garden volunteers incorporate art and science through activities such as pressing edible flowers and tasting the six edible plant parts.

Dedicated parent volunteer Andrea Anderson says of her family, “We eat two to three vegetables every day with our meals now because we learned about them in Garden Club.”

Now that Abuelo’s youngest child is about to graduate from Sherman Elementary next year, her focus has shifted from garden buildout to garden sustainability.  The positive impact of the school garden on students and their families over the past seven years is a lasting legacy in and of itself, but the enduring existence and impact of the school garden for years to come is a common vision that Abuelo shares with school garden coordinators across San Diego Unified.

Looking to the future, Abuelo and fellow Sherman Elementary garden enthusiasts like Anderson are seeking to increase parent and community engagement as a means to realizing the vision of garden sustainability.  Due to the socioeconomic disadvantage that pervades the community, Abuelo and her garden counterparts wisely express the importance of involving parents at whatever level it is that they can contribute.

While financial capital is certainly a necessary component in the quest to sustain this transformative school garden, Abuelo stresses how assets such as human and social capital are just as vital.  Parents can contribute “sweat equity” via their experiential agricultural knowledge, or simply by way of their enthusiasm towards lending a hand during Garden Club or during volunteer garden work days.

Parents can additionally utilize their existing networks throughout the community to amass widespread support for the school garden.  Abuelo hopes to not only engage parents, but also ensure that dedicated garden parents have a significant say in decision making and garden development in order to empower them to take ownership over the school garden.

Another opportunity for community engagement is to share the special garden experience with the entire school community through events such as an annual Garden Festival.

Sherman Elementary held its first such event last Spring, successfully bringing positive exposure and raffle dollars to the school garden in what will surely become a yearly effort to promote garden sustainability.

Abuelo is seeking to complement this springtime festival with a family outreach event in the Fall.  The vision is to host an onsite garden workshop for students and their parents, during which garden educators lead rotations such as cooking from the garden and working in the garden.

“I think it’s important to instill food and gardening literacy at the family level, Abuelo says, citing potential positive impacts on student health and academic performance.

School garden sustainability is a daunting goal.  Yet by centering their efforts on the link between community and food, the Sherman Elementary garden enthusiasts are striving to cement the school garden into the culture of the school and the surrounding community.

If you know of any blooming school gardens or dedicated school garden coordinators that deserve to be featured in our Garden Spotlight, let us know!  Email with your recommendations.

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