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Planting the Seeds of Learning

Posted by SVP Los Angeles

By Ashley Archibald

Click here to read the story at Santa Monica Daily Press.

GRANT ELEMENTARY — “It would be good to get a photographer down here as soon as possible.”

That can be an ominous statement, but coming from Alan Friedenberg, it was welcome news.  The Grant principal was happy to show off his school’s vegetable-laden learning garden, a product of love and dedication on the part of an army of parents committed to bringing their children a hands-on education about the food they eat from seed to plate.

The garden covers 1,000 square feet of space where flat asphalt used to lie, and includes two plots for every grade level, all hand-built and tended by parents, students and teachers.  Jennifer Raymond and Jessica Tuck, parents of third graders at the school, were the driving force behind the project who took a seed of an idea and coaxed it into reality.

The pair met through their children’s common classes, and realized that they also shared a passion for health, nutrition, the outdoors and gardening. They wanted to make sure that their children, and other students at the school, got introduced to the magic of food production as well as a drop course in the benefits of homegrown food.

“Gardening is such an obvious, wonderful way to get kids learning and understanding about healthy eating, food and where it comes from,” Tuck said. “We want them to know the choices necessary to eating healthy.”

For Raymond, a long-time gardener herself, growing food first-hand seemed like a natural vehicle for the lessons, and she knew the group that could make it happen in the context of the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day.  Raymond and her husband work with Los Angeles Social Venture Partners, a group of like-minded people who pool time, resources and manpower to help nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles take off.  Through Social Venture Partners, the pair was introduced to GrowingGreat, a nonprofit based in Manhattan Beach that promotes education about health and nutrition through a curriculum that meets the requirements of the state Department of Education, meaning that teachers can use it in the classroom for lessons they are already required to teach.

“We decided that we would like to bring this to our children’s school,” Raymond said. “That began a year-long odyssey.”

Showing up to a school with an idea to put a large garden on its grounds doesn’t get very far — you have to come in with all the heavy lifting already done, Tuck said.

“People are very responsive and helpful if you approach it from the position that you’ll take care of everything, here are the answers to your questions and let me know what the options are,” Tuck said. “You have to be willing to do every bit of the work yourself.”

Fortunately, Tuck and Raymond found themselves with a willing faculty and an enthusiastic group of parents ready to roll up their sleeves and dig into the project — literally.  Once the group won approval from the school and district staff, they were faced with 1,000 feet of asphalt that needed to be removed and rock-hard soil underneath to prepare for the above-ground garden boxes that they hoped would soon bear fruit.  A generous donation of time and equipment by Morley Builders took the asphalt out of the equation, but tens of parent volunteers appeared to water down the hardpack dirt, build the boxes and prepare the soil for planting.  It was prepped and ready for the students when school began. Every child got to plant a seed, Tuck said.

After the physical labor involved in putting the garden together was finished, parents remained active on the educational side of the equation. The same parents trained to become nutrition and garden docents through Growing Great, able to deliver the educational component to the excited children. It’s as good for the parents as it is for the kids, Raymond said.

“It’s an opportunity for us as parents to learn about how to talk about these issues with our kids, how to make it fun and accessible,” Raymond said.

Mere months later, the garden is bursting at the seams with different types of lettuce, kale, carrots, radishes, snap peas, broccoli and other vegetables that flourish in Santa Monica’s mild winter climate. The kids will get to harvest their bounty and have a party with food furnished from their own garden.  Now that the garden is established, Tuck and Raymond are working to keep funding for the project constant.  It got off the ground through the generosity of Morley Builders, local restaurant Rustic Canyon and parents, but sustaining it at a cost of between $1,000 and $1,500 per year for materials and curriculum may require grant funding, Raymond said.

In the meantime, the parents have nature to contend with. They’re hoping to get enough seeds and materials ready for the spring planting so that children will return to school in 2012-13 to a garden bursting with seasonal pumpkins and squashes.

“Wouldn’t it be great to grow our own pumpkins for Halloween?” Tuck said.