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The Dirt on Teaching Gardens

School system encouraging the development of gardens for kids

Shelby County School teachers from across the city gathered in January to talk about teaching gardening. The first Farm to School Annual Conference was hosted by SCS’s Division of Nutrition Services and held at their facility on Jackson Avenue. About 100 people were in attendance, including teachers, students, farmers, and community partners.

The objective was to share information about building gardens at schools, ways to develop curriculum around gardening, and helping to strengthen the connection between local farmers and the school system. To date, 41 school gardens have been completed and Anthony Geraci, the director of nutrition services, says additional funding will enable 25 more to be built later this year.

James Ritter, a chemistry and physics teacher at Kingsbury High School, was one educator in attendance who hopes to take advantage of Geraci’s funding offer. Ritter considers himself an avid gardening enthusiast and sees the benefit of having a garden built at his high school. “The kids I teach have no knowledge of where food comes from,” he says. “I can tell them where it comes from, but now, I’ll be able to show them.”

Geraci believes gardening can make learning more relevant to students. “If you let kids plant a seed and they see it grow, they are forever changed,” says Geraci, who was a chef and restaurant owner before becoming an educator. “I didn’t get math until I started cooking, and I didn’t get chemistry until I saw bread rise. These things made learning relevant to me.” He also believes in supporting the local economy by buying food grown locally when possible.

Several students from White Station and West Memphis High school led a workshop demonstrating how easy it is to build a raised bed from concrete blocks. The students built a garden last year with money they raised themselves. Margaret Halton, a senior at White Station, and Ian Handsgrove of West Memphis High, also work with Michael Townsend, the farm manager for nutrition services, as Farm to Folk Fellows. The teams go out during the summer months and tend gardens around the city. They also lead groups of volunteers to help with gardening tasks. Geraci’s office has hired several staffers to oversee the school and community garden effort.

“Being a gardener teaches you patience and gives you a sense of commitment,” notes Sam Kitterman, who worked with Halton to help build White Station High’s garden. “The garden isn’t our baby, but when we go out of town, we have to make sure others are taking care of it, because it’s a living thing.”

Another popular workshop was Gardening in the Classroom, led by faculty from University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. They are working with teachers in Knox County and developing curriculum on gardening that matches the state’s core standards in math, science, social studies, and literacy.             

“The UT Extension office is a resource for the community,” instructor Susan Schexnayder reminded class members. “They teach master gardeners who then have a mandatory 40 hours of community service work.” Put them to work, she says. MP


To learn more about the teaching garden initiative, go to SCS’s Nutrition Services site, scsk12.org.


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