February 2024
Local Food
Ashley Fine

Better Education through Food

Locally, the Central Arizona School Garden Educators Collective, an extension of Slow Food Prescott, has been meeting for over a year to explore and share ideas for improving garden-based learning throughout the community. The group meets once each season and just recently hosted its winter gathering. Since January 2023 it has helped support about 90 outdoor educators and school-garden enthusiasts. The most recent event brought together nearly 40 people who will impact over 7,000 area youth through garden-centered learning.

In their meetings local garden educators have delved into topics like outdoor classroom management, teaching science, technology, engineering and math in the garden, nutrition, and student wellness. This group has also hosted a Yavapai County school garden tour and provided youth activities at events such as Seed Mania and Prescott College’s annual Harvest Fest.

Suli Sherman, Zoe Carter, and Lorelai Ill in the Skyview School Garden

In professional parlance the Collective is a professional learning community, a model that has been gaining popularity in many educational settings. Andrew Miller, writing in Edutopia, observes that PLCs create a ‘container’ in which educators can “work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry ... to achieve better results for the students they serve.”

PLCs can take on a range of aspects depending on their settings and purposes. While many PLCs are focused on improving instruction, with the specific goal of bolstering student test scores, others have different objectives. Across the nation, garden-based educators are forming various kinds of learning communities to share ideas, solve problems, and reflect and improve on their strategies.

The Collective takes a responsive approach, meaning that each time the educators meet they discuss things they need support with and offer suggestions on topics they want to know more about. Likewise, various Collective members with expertise in different areas take turns guiding and facilitating professional development for the group. 

Vegetables grown in the Skyview School Garden

In the most recent gathering, for instance, Teresa Manning and Sharmel Jordan from Yavapai County Community Health Services, along with Nicole Lund from the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, shared lesson plans designed to teach kids about the nutritional benefits of “eating the rainbow.” They did a cooking demonstration showing how to make simple, kid-friendly chopped-kale salad, packed with nutrients. They emphasized that eating a variety of fresh foods representing the spectrum of colors offers a broad range of health benefits. 

PLCs help teachers gain insight into what other schools and programs are doing within, and beyond, their own communities. They help education professionals gain awareness of new research, perspectives, and emerging tools.

An emphasis in the most recent garden-educator gathering here was the importance of adopting an inclusive approach to food education. Presenters acknowledged that each person, including young students, has their own unique relationship with food. This relationship can be very personal and often reflects an individual’s culture, traditions, values, affordability and access. Regardless of the foods they eat, every student, along with their family or caregivers, deserves respect. Food educators should avoid making others feel shame about diet, food preferences or accessibility. People teaching kids about nutrition do better to focus instead on simply providing positive and healthy food experiences for kids to take part in.

Garden teachers can help students learn how to grow and prepare food for themselves. They can show kids how eating a wide array of fresh garden foods can be not only healthy, but delicious too. School gardens help kids recognize their inextricable connection with all of nature as well as the people who work to produce and provide the food they eat.

All these things can be introduced without placing any negative value judgment on the foods kids have in their own homes. Food educators can be advocates for helping kids celebrate themselves and other people’s unique backgrounds, cultural traditions, recipes and local knowledge.

The Central Arizona School Garden Educators Collective is already planning its spring gathering, which will take place in April at the Highlands Center for Natural History. If you’d like to learn more about this PLC or get involved, contact me as the school-garden liaison for Slow Food Prescott at afine@skyview.k12.az.us.

Ashley Fine is a teacher at Skyview School.Chef Molly Beverly is away this month. Photos by Ashley.

Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.