There are school gardens and then there are school gardens. Those at 51 elementary school sites in the Miami-Dade Public Schools in Florida are not so much gardens as “food forests” teeming with native vegetable life ranging from standards like tomatoes and peppers to horticultural exotica like malanga, moringa and Lalu spinach.
The gardens, some as large as a quarter of an acre, are operated by the Education Fund, a non-profit that has gotten grants for the project from Health Foundation of South Florida and Citi Cards. Each garden cost $30,000 to construct and annual maintenance for the 51 sites cost about $500,000.
While their primary purpose is educational—students assist in cultivating and harvesting crops even as they learn about them—the school meal program is also benefitting from the bounty produced by the gardens not only in terms of ingredients but also by encouraging students to try new, healthy things.
The forest gardens each incorporate a few base perennials such as spinach and hibiscus but each is also customized to its particular school population’s preferences with exotic plants native to members of each surrounding community.
So, for example, one school with a large proportion of students from Haiti has a garden that grows Lalu spinach, a popular staple in that country, while one with a large Cuban population grows crops like malanga, yucca and boniato.
Over the past two years, some of the crops have been incorporated into the school meal program, mostly as ingredients in salads, though a few are also now appearing in prepared dishes, mostly optional sides. What’s not used onsite is given away to families to take home and use.
The gardens currently grow five different spinaches and three varieties of edible hibiscus plants that go into salad mixes.
“It started as just sampling, such as putting the basil from the garden on pizzas, but now they have enough [production] to put into the salad,” says Penny Parham, administrative director of the Miami-Dade Schools Department of Food and Nutrition, who facilitated the use of the garden ingredients in the meal program by ensuring they meet regulatory requirements.
“We created a policy and a HAACP procedure that outlines what’s required so that when teachers and students have a garden, what they grow can be brought into the cafeteria and incorporated into the meals,” she says.
The gardens remain primarily educational spaces, part of the curriculum that lets students learn about horticulture, history, culture and biology, though they also extend to areas like art and composition with students going into the garden to draw the plants or write about them. But most of the activity is more hands-on.
“They weed, they mulch, they do science lessons, they measure the plants, they plant the food, they do everything,” says Debi La Belle, edible garden program manager for the Education Fund, who has also assisted district cafeteria managers in incorporating the forest garden crops into the meal program. “They are either led by the teacher or [Education Fund representatives] go out there and we do lessons and we show them what’s edible, how to eat it, how to harvest it.”
The teaching activities directly influence cafeteria behavior, she adds.
“The impact among the kids is that is that they know what’s growing in their garden and when they see it in the school lunch, [they recognize it],” La Belle observes. “Kids get used to snacking in the gardens from the things that are there and, in fact, salad sales have gone up at the schools where things from the gardens have been mixed in.”
“What we’ve built up is a great partnership not only with the Education Fund, but also our wellness and health activities with teachers and students,” Parham says. “Our foodservice managers have had a great time with it because the kids are awesome and it has resulted in great collaboration between teachers and foodservice staff.”
One manifestation of that partnership is that this summer a group of Miami-Dade teachers and foodservice staff will be attending a three-day cafeteria/classroom/garden connection workshop at Johnson & Wales University thanks to a grant from the Florida Deptartment of Agriculture secured through the efforts of La Belle and Miami-Dade Schools Nutrition & Wellness Coordinator Audra Wright.