Looking at her garden, which in May was nothing more than a raised bed of soil, provider Marie Gibson smiles. “I never would have guessed,” she said, “that I would have a pumpkin patch in my backyard.” The pumpkins, which are just beginning to grow, make up only a small part of Marie’s bountiful garden. Her garden is so full of herbs, vegetables, and fruit that the plants are growing on top of each other. It is difficult to imagine that only four months ago this garden did not exist. Marie was one of the All Our Kin providers selected for the organic garden pilot program. Along with Josie Queen, she had an organic garden planted in her backyard early this spring. Now, in late summer, both women say it is difficult to imagine a time without their gardens. Josie says that even though the garden “requires lots of dedication,” it “comes with awesome results that benefit everyone.” As if to underscore this point, one of her children wanders up to the garden, beginning to carefully weed the garden, happily humming a song about plants they had learned earlier in the week.
Results like this were exactly the type we hoped for when we began the Garden Project. Working with dedicated community member Shel Swanson, All Our Kin brought organic gardens to two of our Network providers. The project, which Shel describes as a “labor of love,” was an effort to expose children to how their food is grown, help them develop healthy eating habits, and harness their curiosity about the natural world into new and exciting learning. Shel helped start the program after realizing “that learning how to garden, how to grow your own food, how to be comfortable in nature, and how to cook with your own food isn’t something that comes naturally but that is taught, and taught from a young age.”
The Garden Project was an attempt to do just that. Marie says, “I know it sounds crazy, but many of my children had never even seen broccoli before–and I have to be honest, at first they didn’t really like it.” In fact, many of the children were wary of the vegetables that began to appear on their plates at lunch time. “Vegetables are kind of hard sell after cookies” says Marie. Gradually, though, the children began to warm up to these new foods. Josie agreed. At her home the new vegetables became favorites. “My kids” she says “fight over the peas.”
The gardens have also become outdoor classrooms. Paula Simpson, All Our Kin’s senior educational consultant, sees these gardens as an important learning opportunity. She says that the gardens are “active learning sites” that “reinforce lessons better than books could alone.” Paula points to a recent lesson of Marie’s as an example of this. When Marie found caterpillars eating her tomatoes, she created a terrarium so that the children could watch them transform into moths. When asked about her garden’s potential for learning, Marie beams, saying “the possibilities are endless.”
The project’s rewards extend beyond the providers’ programs. Another benefit of the gardens is the family and community engagement that stems from them. Marie and Josie’s families have become enthusiastic participants in the upkeep of the gardens. Marie’s own children have faithfully weeded and watered her garden, and when caterpillars threatened Marie’s tomatoes, her children helped her research organic pesticide options. The gardens have also helped the providers become more connected to the parents involved in their programs. Both providers invite parents to help with the development of the garden. The providers also urge parents to jointly devise healthy eating routines for their children. “When the food is ready to be picked, I send it to the parents. We split the fruits and veggies up, talk about which ones we love most, and the kids get to bring them home and tell their parents about their favorites, too. The garden is teaching the students, the parents, and me about healthy living,” Marie raves.
Josie, too, sees the garden as an opportunity for family engagement. Josie was thrilled when her children expressed interest in having gardens of their own. Together they are planting small gardens to bring home to share with their families. She hopes that this will encourage similar, wholesome eating habits.
The gardens provide an easy outlet for engaging not only young children, but also their families. The project has been an important tool for teaching parents about the importance of healthy eating habits. Both Marie and Josie have given parents fruits and vegetables to parents to take home. And Marie has put a special emphasis on teaching parents on how to provide their children the resources to lead healthy and happy lives.
As we watch our gardens flourish, we similarly see our communities and our children grow. Through the gardens, we have had the opportunity to reach out to providers and communities in ways we could not have predicted. In fact, the project has been so successful that we have received a generous grant from Stratton Faxon Law Firm, which will allow us to expand the program to many more providers and will allow our educational consultants to expand and develop their lesson plans. Stratton Faxon’s support will allow them to create extended learning opportunities that draw on children’s excitement and wonder about the natural world. Marie was thrilled to discover that her colleagues would be receiving gardens, saying, “I wish everyone could have a garden.” Josie was equally as excited. When asked if she would do the project again, she smiled and said “Definitely. My husband and I are thinking about putting in a second one ourselves.”
–Written by Marielle Sanchez and Billy Moran, All Our Kin Fellows