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While most school gardens participate in maybe just one of our districts three Farm to School programs (Garden to Café, Youth Garden Stand, and Café to Compost), Challenger Middle School goes above and beyond by participating in all three of them.  And they don’t just do them. They do them really, really well.

With a catching name like “EcoSquad”, it’s no wonder that Challenger’s garden club is the largest club on campus.  After school, twice a week, the club meets.  They fill a classroom with about forty students and five science teachers.  At the front of the room the club president, a young 7th grade girl, conducts a vote about how they want to use their funds for things like club t-shirts or the type of orchard trees they want to plant. Students vote. Tallies are counted.  And a decision is made. 

Next, the students break out into their different “teams.”  There’s a team for every garden task such as composting, recycling, watering/planting, weeding, and mulching.  It’s apparent with anyone visiting the club, that they are entirely and efficiently student run.

How else do we know?  Danny Cook, one of the science teachers and garden leads at Challenger, called Food Services one day to exclaim that their garden club had harvested 22 pounds of produce for the cafeteria (part of our district’s Garden to Café program.)  This was exciting for two reasons: First, the amount of produce they harvested was significantly a lot more than what other schools typically report back to us.  And second, while most school garden harvests are served on the salad bar, Challenger doesn’t have one.  So Chef Sam, Challenger’s cafeteria supervisor, gets creative and cuts up the bountiful root vegetables and lettuce greens to serve with the packed salads for students and staff during lunchtime.  This year, the EcoSquad has been growing and harvesting so much that some days Chef Sam doesn’t have to purchase food from Food Services for the salads at all!

After the meeting, the students pile out of the class and out to the garden.  They know which teams they are on and what they need to get done for the day.  “Before we didn’t have teams and students didn’t really know what to do…Now with the teams we’re a lot more organized as a group,” says Danny Cook.

Let’s take a look at some of these teams…

There’s the Compost Team, who collect food scraps from the cafeteria (part of our districts Café to Compost program) for their six compost bins.  Some students in this team break down the food scraps with shovels while others go around campus collecting dried, fallen leaves for the compost.  They know a good compost bin needs both it’s “green” and “brown” materials to break down into good soil.  The Mulching Crew’s job is to spread out the mulch and clear the area of the garden where the EcoSquad had voted to plant a small citrus tree orchard.  Here they are putting in their first lime tree.  “Everyone gather for the tree planting ceremony!” a student calls out.

Challenger has gardens both outside and inside of their greenhouse.  The Watering and Planting Teams take turns fulfilling these tasks.  Both inside and outside, student groups are allowed to “adopt-a-plot” in order to take ownership of certain garden box areas.  Inside, Tom Pineda, the new science teacher and another garden lead, constructed a hydroponics system with the students.  It grows an abundant amount of bok choy and lettuce, leading to plentiful harvests for their school salads.  They are finishing building an aquaponics system in the greenhouse as well! 

The Recycling Team actually doesn’t head for the garden.  They go classroom to classroom collecting bottles and cans from the recycling bins.  The bottles and cans are emptied, bagged, and loaded onto a truck where Jeff Talsky, another science teacher and garden lead, takes it to the nearest recycling exchange to get some money for the garden club funds.

Other ways the club gains funding is through holding a Youth Garden Stand and succulent sales.  Through the Youth Garden Stand, which is facilitated by Patricia Evans another science teacher and garden lead, students are able to hold their own produce stand after school.  The prices for each bundle of produce is pre-voted upon during the club meetings.  They sell afterschool to families, teachers/staff, and their neighborhood community around the school.  Students learn propagation and rooting by preparing succulent plants to sell as well during school events.  Lastly, Challenger has been a recipient of our district’s annual Harvest Contest in the past couple years.

With all their success and growth over the years, Challenger was recently been selected to have a visit from San Diego State University who is working with the Caribbean on enhancing their farm to school nutrition programs. They are an exemplary garden club and we as a district could not be more proud of all their accomplishments.