2019 Urban Ag Conference Attendees

Creative Ideas Blossom at School Garden Conference

February 20, 2019
By: Nancy Sheehan

U .S. Rep. James P. McGovern recently lauded Worcester State University for its creative gardens, describing them as innovative models for others to follow.

“I want to thank Worcester State University for hosting this wonderful event,” the 11-term Worcester Congressman said at an agricultural conference on campus Feb. 9. McGovern is chair of the House Rules Committee, co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus, and a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

“All of the incredible work by the faculty and the students here really sets an example, not just for other colleges and schools, but for our city and for our country,” he said. “There’s so much innovation happening on this campus, and it’s really exciting.”

McGovern was addressing the Winter 2019 Urban Ag Conference, held in the May Street Building at Worcester State. The event gathered K-12 and higher education institutions and community leaders from across the region to address the most common challenges to maintaining a productive and interactive school garden. McGovern highlighted Worcester State’s Teaching Garden adjacent to Chandler Magnet School and the Leafy Green Machine, where salad greens are raised in a 40-foot shipping container for consumption in the WSU dining hall.

More children likely will have the benefits of a school garden in the future due to McGovern’s strong advocacy for urban gardens, the hungry, and agriculture in general in Washington, D.C., and here at home, president Barry M. Maloney said.

The concept for the Urban Ag conference arose a couple of years ago out of a conversation McGovern had with Adam Saltsman, Ph.D., of the Urban Studies Department during the Congressman’s visit to the WSU Leafy Green Machine, Maloney said. The Urban Studies department also oversees the Teaching Garden through its community action and outreach arm, called the Urban Action Institute.

McGovern “is pushing higher education institutions in Worcester to think about how we can extend our collaboration to community partners and the city’s schools to advance the promise of urban agriculture as a tool for food justice in our city,” Maloney said.

McGovern also had a murderous confession to make when he spoke at the conference.

“I kill houseplants,” he said. “I’m not even allowed to water the plants in my office. I can’t grow anything.” That horticultural shortcoming, he said, might be one reason he is fascinated by farming, gardening and all things related to agriculture. “Maybe if there had been a garden in my elementary school growing up, or in my high school, I wouldn’t be so garden challenged now,” he said. “Maybe I would’ve developed a green thumb.”

Helping a child develop such a green thumb is not the only reason why school-based gardens are so important, he added.  

Researchers across the country and the world have explored the benefits of school-based community gardens. The American Community Garden Association has compiled an impressive list of quantifiable benefits. “It will all come as no surprise to anyone here, but the benefits of growing food on school property are broad and far-reaching,” McGovern said. Among them:

  • Scientists studied the impacts of gardening on third graders in Louisiana. They found that students involved with gardens generally take pleasure in learning and show positive attitudes towards education.
  • In Texas, scientists found that students who have full gardening programs incorporated into their science curriculum scored significantly higher on science achievement tests than students who were taught by strictly traditional classroom methods.

In addition to those and other documentable academic benefits of school gardens, there are also benefits to the physical wellbeing of not only children who participate, but the adults who lead them.

“Studies tell us that people who are familiar with growing their own food tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and are more inclined to continue healthy eating habits throughout their adulthood,” McGovern said. “Gardening exposes people to healthy food, some moderate exercise, and some positive social interactions.”

The Urban Ag conference aimed to help those who want to start a School Garden Program or need help with an existing one. Topics included how to schedule the planting and harvest season to fit within the school year, how to fund the building and maintenance of the garden, how to handle summer maintenance, how to engage community partners, and how the garden can play a role in addressing food insecurity for students and the community.

A school garden also can be a confidence booster, especially for city kids, Worcester teacher JoAnne Rose, a conference attendee, said.

“Unfortunately, when you go home to your apartment, your triple-decker or wherever you live, you might not have that little green space,” she said. “So, this becomes a yard to them and then they start to build relationships with other kids. You might be a loner but now you’ve got this, ‘I’m in the Garden Club’ swagger down the hallway because you have been picked to do this job for the principal or because you’ve shown a little initiative, so it’s kind of sweet.”

School gardens present unique challenges because staff and students are gone during peak gardening season, a converse timing that calls for creative solutions. One helpful possibility is curated crop selection—for example, potatoes.

“You plant them usually around Saint Patrick’s Day so the kids can get out in the spring,” said Kim Pond, a 4-H educator with the UMass Extension Service who attended the conference. “They can watch them start to grow, then there’s very little maintenance over the summer. When they come back in the fall, they can harvest them.”

An early garden also works with things like radishes, lettuce, and spinach. “You can get them started early and they can pick them before school gets out,” Pond said. “And strawberries are great when they come in June, so you can actually have a nice end of the year celebration.”

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