What exactly drives us to build gardens at Albany schools and then lead kids out to them? Why would we bother with those time-consuming fundraising initiatives, like Boxtops for Education, and those time-consuming chores in the garden, like weeding and watering? What is the big deal about growing some of our own lettuce and tomatoes, when it’s so cheap in the supermarket?
For one thing, people who know something about where their food comes from are likely to make healthier choices about what they eat. And kids who help grow lettuce and tomatoes are so much more likely to taste them. We regularly see kids try greens right after proclaiming that they “never eat anything that grows in dirt.”
These explanations, however, just begin to get at the good that can come from school and youth gardening. In broadest terms, hands-on teaching and learning tends to work better than the more-common passive variety. This particular hands-on activity is exceptional in the breadth of directions it can lead: eating, nutrition and food preparation among them, but also science, entrepreneurship and stewardship of the air, water and soil that our lives depend on. The Vegetable Project, as an example of creating modest exposure to thinking like an entrepreneur, creates opportunities for students to sell our produce, honing oral presentation skills and determining appropriate pricing levels.
Working in a community where student outcomes often are discouraging, we would also note the opportunity that a garden creates for quick positive reinforcement for work that is well done. We can offer a pat on the back when seeds germinate, when plants flower and when fruit ripen. That’s hugely important, because many kids, struggling academically, are going to wait a longtime for praise for the schoolwork.
Important as all of these are, however, the real potential may not even have much to do with specific skills, knowledge or school subjects, or even the opportunities for positive reinforcement. Perhaps the most important role of a garden initiative is getting kids outside and interacting with nature. The invitation isn’t always well received. But that probably speaks to how critical it is. Substantial research identifies a calming and balancing effect of time spent in outdoor greenery, a strengthening of resiliency and equanimity. In other words, outdoor experience helps build a foundation for healthy development, as captured by an array of measurements.
Now, all that said, you may have noticed the absence of two other items: preparation for agricultural employment and meaningful production of food. Sad to say, but while some may find fulfilling lives on a farm, agriculture is not typically seen as a growing or lucrative field. And teaching and learning gardens are not usually anywhere near as productive as farms focused on output.