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February 05, 2010

The Family That Gardens Together Stays Together

 by Jessica Goldman

urban sproutsNot in my backyard. The mere phrase suggests the strong ownership many people experience when it comes to their own slice of the outdoors, the place where they can plant a seed and watch it grow. But what if you don’t have a backyard?

Take LaVada Hall, a San Francisco resident who lives with her daughter and mother in a San Francisco apartment. She liked the idea of growing her own fresh food and even with her small space, attempted to nurture a few small pots of produce. But gophers quickly became a problem and the experiment was over soon after it began. That is, until she heard about the Farmers-In-Residence program.

Near the end of last summer, Hall attended a PTSA meeting at the International Studies Academy, where her daughter, Myrtice, is a student. That night, Audrey Roderick from Urban Sprouts, a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on garden-based education, announced the opportunity for 12 families to each claim a 3-foot by 8-foot plot of land on the school’s grounds to raise vegetables as a family.

“People were hesitant and only a few parents signed up,” Hall remembers.  “A lot of people thought it would take too much time.” But a deep concern for her family’s eating habits and the opportunity to work closely with her daughter inspired Hall to add her name to the list. “When we joined,” Hall says, “my daughter, my mother, and I made a commitment to each other to eat healthier.”

boxMyrtice did all the initial planting in the garden and together they shared the responsibility for keeping the plot watered and weeded. They planted lettuce, tomatoes, collard greens, green onions, and napa cabbage. Even though cool weather has slowed the growing season, Hall says she still adds some home-grown produce to their meals at least once a week. “Collard greens were always a family favorite, but now we really love red lettuce and I mix it with the stuff I get at Costco to make my salads for work,” she says. 

Urban Sprouts began in 2003, when Dr. Michelle Ratcliff and Abby Jaramillo spent time at Luther Burbank Middle School testing out the benefits of a highly interactive, garden-based curriculum. Their findings ultimately raised the profile of school gardens as a core tool for youth development and health. 

Urban Sprouts has since expanded to include seven middle schools and high schools and a summer program – all in underserved areas. The garden-based education takes place weekly or bi-weekly during science classes or electives with lessons that range from life sciences to workers rights to farm economy, depending on the grade level. The teachers also often include discussions of the food system as a whole.   

The organization’s work with children is held up as a model, but as anyone working with children knows, schools are only one part of their lives. The idea for the Farmers-In-Residence program stemmed from a desire to bring families into the fold to teach healthy food choices, increase access to fresh and local food, and create an unique situation for the families to experience their children’s school.

urban sprouts“We felt like the work was incomplete,” says Abby Jaramillo, the programs’ current executive director. She noticed that students were excited about eating vegetables and were eager to bring recipes back to their own dinner table. But fresh produce wasn’t necessarily available to their families. So, she and her colleagues thought, why not help them grow some themselves?

Families are given full responsibility for cultivating their produce — planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting. They’re given reading materials on nutrition and gardening techniques. They’re also encouraged to see Urban Sprouts staff, volunteers, and interns as a resource (they even have access to Roderick by cell phone in case an agriculture emergency occurs). The Urban Sprouts staff also provides classes throughout the year on gardening, nutrition, and healthy eating.

If the Hall family is any indication of the success of the program, the school gardens might just have more potential to inspire community than most of us had imagined. At the last PTSA meeting, Lavada Hall encouraged three more families to sign up for plots. Due to the growing number of interested participants, this year’s farmers will be pass their plots onto new families next October. Meanwhile, Urban Sprouts is working on ways to keep current families involved and the healthy routines they’ve created in place.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »