Eco Squad transforming Challenger Middle one tomato at a time

Posted: Thursday, June 1st 2017


Garden at Challenger Middle

You don’t need a green thumb to create a thriving school garden program.

At Challenger Middle School in San Diego Unified School District, the inspiring garden team of teachers, students, and cafeteria staff is proving that “learning-as-you-go” can yield truly magnificent results.

Two years ago, the school’s science department began brainstorming strategies to integrate the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) into their curriculum.  They formulated the idea of constructing a greenhouse on campus, where science classes could conduct experiments and learn through hands-on projects.  With enthusiastic science teachers Patricia Evans, James Whalen, and Jeff Talsky leading the charge, they started designing plans for their envisioned greenhouse.

The first greenhouse was highly innovative – made out of wire and recycled water bottles – but it unfortunately fell victim to vandalism, and the team was forced to start again from scratch.  This time around, they organized fundraisers to raise money for lumber, received donated gravel, and devoted many consecutive weekends this past summer to rebuilding the greenhouse themselves from the ground up.

Sam Esparza, the dedicated and talented head of Challenger’s cafeteria, recalls their time constructing the greenhouse as a “labor of love” and “something historic.”

The end result is indeed pretty spectacular.  Flanked by six raised garden beds, the greenhouse is a large rectangular building with a beautiful wooden structure and clear walls.  In between beds the surface of the garden is covered with woodchips, and soon the beds will be bordered by hand-painted picket fence art pieces made by students.  The garden is located in the heart of the school’s campus, with access to plenty of natural sunlight.

Inside the greenhouse, plump red cherry tomatoes are thriving, and the raised garden beds nearby boast sugar snap peas, romaine lettuce, carrots, corn, and artichokes.

The development of the greenhouse sparked growing enthusiasm among many students at the school who were eager to get involved via a new afterschool club.

Enter Eco Squad.

Now in its second year, Eco Squad is a group of motivated sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who love science and who are excited about learning to garden.  Science teachers Evans and Whalen embrace their roles as club advisors.  They guide the students regarding possible fundraisers and projects, while ultimately empowering the students to lead the club and democratically decide how to focus their collective efforts.

Each Thursday for an hour and a half after school, Eco Squad can be found undertaking a variety of tasks in the school garden such as: watering, weeding, checking on the plants, harvesting fruits and vegetables, filling in the garden with woodchips, using ladybugs to fertilize plants, setting up nets around the plants, planting more fruits and vegetables from seeds, etc.

In Eco Squad, students learn about soil, plants, and the conditions necessary for plants to thrive – many say that this hands-on extracurricular learning is giving them a noticeable advantage in science class.

Sixth grade Eco Squad members Taisia and Bridget enjoy that the club allows them the opportunity to have ideas and submit them for approval to the school’s Associated Student Body (ASB).  For example, Eco Squad hosted a booth at a school carnival with healthy eating displays and refreshing smoothies in collaboration with San Diego Health and Human Services (HHSA).  HHSA donated 100 t-shirts for Eco Squad to raffle off at the carnival in order to raise money for the school garden.

Students emphasize that part of the magic behind Eco Squad is that it is truly their own club.  The teachers are there to support them, not tell them what to do.  Seventh graders Janelle and Gus are president and vice president of the club, respectively, and their genuine excitement about learning to garden is contagious.

“Food just tastes better from the garden!” Gus says.  He had never been crazy about tomatoes before, but after joining Eco Squad and tasting the tomatoes that they grew in the greenhouse, he has decisively changed his tune.  And when I visited the Challenger school garden and was lucky enough to taste one of their freshly picked tomatoes, it was indeed the best tomato I have ever eaten.

The students in Eco Squad want to share the delicious pleasure of garden-fresh fruits and vegetables with their peers and parents.  So they came up with the idea to set up a tasting station at the school’s Open House.  As visiting parents passed by, they would taste and compare garden-grown tomatoes and grocery store tomatoes.  Most participants agreed that the garden tomatoes tasted vastly better than the store-bought variety.

Eco Squad also shares the tomatoes and other garden produce with their fellow students via a district Farm to School program called Garden to Café.  Through a partnership with San Diego Unified Food and Nutrition Services, the school garden can harvest and deliver fresh produce to the school cafeteria.  Usually, the produce would then be served on the school salad bar during lunch.  However, because Challenger’s infrastructure is not set up to accommodate a salad bar, the cafeteria site leader Sam has to get creative.

“Chef Sam” – as he is affectionately known to the students – cleverly integrates the delicious garden vegetables into a salad that is already offered on the school lunch menu each day, the Chicken Caesar Salad.  The salad consists of romaine lettuce, savory chicken strips, parmesan cheese, and creamy dressing.  However, on days when Eco Squad delivers a harvest to the cafeteria, Sam enhances the Caesar salad with crisp garden lettuce, crunchy garden carrots, and juicy garden tomatoes.  He says the extra time and effort it takes him to wash, dry, chop, and prepare the garden produce on Garden to Café days is well worth it because the salads consistently sell out. 

Science teacher and Eco Squad co-advisor Whalen notes that students in his class actually fist-pumped one day when he told them that school garden vegetables would be featured in the Chicken Caesar Salad at lunchtime!

Whalen and fellow science teachers Evans and Talsky began this whole school garden endeavor with limited garden knowledge.  Through copious online research, learning by doing, a lot of extra time and money, donations and grants, and a no-fear attitude, they have created a truly incredible school garden program.

Looking forward, Eco Squad co-advisors Evans and Whalen hope to use the garden itself for fundraising – for example, by growing and selling succulents, as well as selling compost and worms.  They are also eager to design a plan for next year that outlines how to integrate the school garden further into their science curricula.  They want to expand upon activities they have done this year such as drying out snap peas from the garden and utilizing them for a lesson on seed genetics.

Other ambitious goals include: upscaling productivity in the greenhouse, installing solar panels so that they can naturally power things inside the greenhouse like fans, adding an aquaponics system, creating an outdoor classroom in the garden complete with benches and tables, integrating the garden into fellow teacher Mary Hight’s cooking club, and planting some fruit trees. 

As for what kinds of fruits to plant next in the garden, Evans and Whalen defer to the students.  Proud Eco Squad members Janelle, Gus, and Sandra are eager to get adventurous and plant exotic fruits such as jackfruit, kumquats, dragonfruit, soursop, mangosteen, and bell apples.

What started as a group of science teachers brainstorming ways to integrate NGSS into their curriculum has evolved into an impressive greenhouse, a beautiful and productive school garden, an enthusiastic Eco Squad, a thriving Garden to Café program, endless opportunities for hands-on science projects, and so much more.  And if the mouthwateringly delicious tomatoes are any indication, the teachers and students have evolved into talented gardeners as well.

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 foodcorps@sandi.net with your recommendations.

Story written by Amy Garfinkel.

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