The vivacious and enthusiastic school-garden champion Stephen Ritz of the South Bronx in New York believes that “education and food education go hand-in-hand because children, first and foremost, will never be well-read if they’re not well fed … and teaching children that input equals output really dictates how they treat themselves and the planet.”
He proclaims that “Teaching kids to count is cool, but teaching them what counts is even better!” Many garden educators around our area share these sentiments, and these ideals are reflected in their programs.
For Sara Reveile, Prescott’s Farm to School Coordinator, one of the main goals of garden education in Prescott Unified School District is nutrition education and connecting kids with local farms and produce. She hopes that experiences in the garden will encourage kids to eat healthy foods and learn where their food comes from. She notes that kids are more willing to taste fruits or vegetables that they “poured their souls into growing.”
As a result of our modern food systems, most of what kids eat comes from the Three Bs: bags, boxes, and bottles. Any activity that inspires kids to eat fresh, whole foods, especially those grown right at home or at school, help build healthier habits and healthier kids.
At schools throughout Prescott Unified School District, Reveile helps organize tasting events in which students get to share and celebrate the foods they have grown. The Yavapai Community Health Department, local farmers and representatives of the Prescott Farmer’s Market often attend these events to help students learn more about local agriculture and how it connects with their health and lives.
Tasting events at some of Prescott’s Title 1 schools often result in kids trying certain vegetables for the first time. For educators like Reveile, the hope is that students will take their enthusiasm for these new foods home and feel inspired to expand their diets or even start their own home gardens with their families. As a school-garden educator myself at Skyview School, some of my favorite moments are when parents email me pictures of their children working in the kitchen, or their family sitting around the dinner table eating something my students tasted at school, or even grew at school and brought home to share with their families.
Scholly Ketcher, a master gardener and volunteer at Primavera School, echoes the sentiment that teaching children where food comes from and how fresh-grown foods taste is an important goal of edible education. Scholly first worked with students in Head Start programs, and was able to witness the beauty and benefit of watching kids sink skin into the soil. She admitted that even when garden projects fail to produce the abundant produce one hopes for, there is still huge value in students learning and working outside. Scholly enjoys volunteering at Primavera, where they are currently revitalizing and expanding their existing school garden.
In addition to health and nutrition education, a core goal of school gardens throughout our community is environmental education. In the gardens students learn about plants, animals and soil, as well as the complex systems and cycles in which they interact.
Sarah Vincent, education director at the Highlands Center for Natural History, points out that research shows “people learn best in outdoor classrooms,” and the center’s staff and volunteers take this to heart. The organization hosts a wide variety of onsite programs for people of all ages and abilities, as well as a schoolyard habitat program.
The Highlands Center takes great pride in being a mission-driven nonprofit serving the community as a leader in environmental education and sustainability for over 25 years. During that time it has helped establish over ten schoolyard habitat gardens, in every one of Prescott’s public schools. These schoolyard habitats aim to lift up native plant and pollinator species and help students develop an appreciation for the long history of humans interacting with and relying on our local plant communities for physical and cultural survival.
Whether students are on campus at the Highlands Center or learning in a schoolyard habitat, Sarah Vincent explains that their main goals are to help students gain skill and knowledge, develop connections to place, and give them opportunities to experience moments of quiet observation and mindful reflection.
Developing physical connections with place is vital for kids. Whether it is “hiking, rolling down a hill, or smelling a tree,” Vincent affirms that opportunities for exploration and play engage students on a deeper level than many traditional learning experiences.
Among garden-based educators around town an important conversation is emerging about the possibilities of integrating edible gardens and schoolyard habitats. These conversations reflect broader trends toward more regenerative and ecologically informed agricultural practices. A thriving, productive garden depends on healthy soils, water, and intact pollinator populations. Food production does not occur as an isolated process. All the natural cycles that occur in a wild environment also play out in a garden ecosystem. This is why many people are drawing inspiration from the food forest agricultural model.
Skyview School has been intentionally working on this model for several years. The school’s habitat garden is a food forest that includes native flowering plants with fruit trees, berries and seasonal bean crops. In turn, the spaces dedicated to crop production are flanked with native wildflowers and shrubs. We employ companion planting, and you’ll find very few straight rows anywhere in the garden.
While this model may not work for all school-garden spaces, even having more typical habitat gardens in close proximity with a school’s edible garden provides powerful, exciting and often spontaneous learning opportunities for kids.
To be future problem-solvers, students will need to tackle complex issues like climate change and food insecurity through creative, integrated, whole-system approaches. What better place to develop systems-level thinking than in a garden? Likewise, we all greatly need agricultural practices based on regeneration, not just sustainability, to improve the health of our planet and ensure healthy food is available for all people into the future.
Prescott schools have a lot to be proud of! It’s clear that local educators and administrators recognize the importance of joining the nationwide educational trend toward incorporating garden-based learning with core curricula and school environments. Like the Bronx educator Steven Ritz has long recognized, Prescott’s schools are embracing the belief that “the ability to produce food in cities, hyper-local, hyper-fresh and hyper-connected, creates opportunities for learning, better health, better wealth, better nutrition and a more robust society. There is just no better aim for our schools!
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.