This spring, students at Oglesby Elementary and Rowe Elementary, on Chicago's’ South and West sides, are growing seedlings of purple cauliflower, green tomatoes, and other vegetables they may never have seen before. As students sort through seeds provided by the Seed Savers Exchange, they talk with teachers about how genetic diversity in the garden is important, just like diversity in their schools and communities.
These conversations are possible because of a new gardening group in Chicago called the Gardeneers. Founded by two teachers (May Tsupros and Adam Zmick) who recognized the crucial link between healthy habits, nutritious food, and the academic success of their students, the Gardeneers are working to change school climates through the garden.
The school gardening community in Chicago has a long history, and the Gardeneers hope to bring a new approach to the table. After seeing gardens launch in the spring with a flurry of activity and enthusiasm, May and Adam recognized a pattern of gardens being neglected because schools depended exclusively on teachers to shepherd their garden programs without factoring in the necessary time and expertise needed, especially over the summer when teachers and students are out of school.
The Gardeneers were born from that realization. After surveying school leaders around Chicago, they discovered that the greatest obstacle to implementing a successful school garden program was staffing—due to expertise, costs, or both. The Gardeneers team provides a unique and customized combination of services for schools looking to implement school gardens. This package includes dedicated expertise, creative lesson plans, and maintenance throughout the whole growing season to keep gardens thriving and integrated into school and community life.
This holistic approach comes with a maximum price tag of $10,000 per school for a growing season. While this price may sound high, it is actually quite a bargain comparatively. The Gardeneers’ fee includes garden set-up, continued maintenance, and a curriculum for the entire growing season, with a “Gardeneer” coming into the school once a week to teach customized lessons. Other organizations charge up to $35,000 for garden installation alone, without necessarily providing follow-up maintenance or educational resources for teachers.
The benefits far outweigh the cost, according to co-founder Adam Zmick. “School gardens are incredibly important from an educational perspective. There's so much data about how these gardens can improve academic outcomes, reduce discipline problems, develop job skills, and strengthen the local community.... We created Gardeneers to make the key ingredients for success available to every school while being incredibly conscious of limited resources.”
During the 2014 growing season, the Gardeneers are working in three schools around Chicago. Those schools are financing their gardens through grant funding, individual donors, and pockets of school budgets. The Gardeneers plan to expand to 50 schools within the next five years, and make it a priority to work with schools where more than 90 percent of students receive free and reduced lunches.
The Gardeneers curriculum continues to evolve, incorporating diverse elements of biology, chemistry, history, environmental stewardship, and other diverse subjects. Co-founder May Tsupros says that above all, the Gardeneers hope to use school gardens to find a lesson in everything and to facilitate unique conversations around the gardens.
These lessons extend beyond the school walls. The Gardeneers work to help students and faculty understand how the garden connects to the community climate and the environmental climate around their neighborhood. During harvest time in the fall, students will give garden tours to community members to practice sharing the knowledge they have gained with others. The Gardeneers also plan to involve neighbors and community members in the summer maintenance and protection of the garden.
In their first few weeks of the growing season, the Gardeneers have already seen evidence that lessons learned in the garden are growing beyond the classroom. Students have reported going home and talking to their families about the vegetables they are growing—like broccoli—and requesting to cook them for dinner. The Gardeneers are partners with Chicago Public Schools, and have taken the Eat What You Grow training to maintain food safety standards for students to eat the food they produce in school gardens.
The Gardeneers’ leadership is particularly well suited to understand the educational and environmental nuances of creating school garden programs that will thrive. The co-founders are public school teachers and Teach for America alumni.
May Tsupros has been teaching biology, environmental science, and chemistry in Chicago for six years in neighborhoods like North Lawndale.
“At the end of the day, though, scores and grades and numbers only gauge one form of success,” says Tsupros. “We need to also focus on growing successful, well rounded, human beings. I believe with all my heart that food, nutrition, and community are the foundations on which we need to build and focus our attention regarding education in Chicago and all the United States. One small seed can grow a bountiful harvest, and I hope that Gardeneers can be that seed."
While still in the initial stages of launching their organization, the Gardeneers are off to an impressive start. Co-founder Adam Zmick recently started running the organization full-time to prepare for their anticipated growth. They are eager to connect with other schools that want to launch gardens in fall 2014 and spring 2015.
To achieve that rate of growth, the Gardeneers are looking for support from the community in the form of gardening supplies (wheelbarrows, gloves, shovels, trowels, planter boxes) and financial contributions.
• Cortney Ahern currently serves as president of Slow Food Chicago, the nation's third-largest chapter. She has experience working across the food chain on domestic and international agricultural issues. Cortney has held strategic positions at the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She has worked on organic family farms in upstate New York and Isaan, Thailand. She holds a BA in peace and conflict studies from Colgate University, and studied international social justice throughout Southeast Asia. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @ctahern.
• This article originally appeared at Food Tank, a think tank focused on feeding the world better. Food Tank researches and highlights environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty and creates networks of people, organizations, and content to push for food system change.