School Gardens Update

Subject: World Café on School Gardens – Report

Date: April 9, 2014

Hello, World Café Participants,

The world café brought an astonishing 40-50 key stakeholders together for the first time, including many town and school officials, to talk about school gardens—how to create and sustain them in Watertown.  It forged new connections, bubbled up a lot of possibilities, and built momentum for this important initiative.  (For a partial list of key stakeholders who attended, please see last page.)

The gathering was structured around three rounds of conversation in which people were asked:  1) Why do I care about school gardens and find them important?, 2) What are the challenges and dilemmas in creating and sustaining school gardens in Watertown?,  and 3) What are the opportunities and possibilities? If our success was assured, what steps would we take to move this initiative to the next level?

Why Do School Gardens Matter?

Participants created a long list of reasons in response to this question. They agreed that school gardens are outdoor classrooms that demonstrate the transformative power of growing, cooking and sharing food.  And school gardens help kids learn to make lifelong healthy eating choices. In addition, they:

  • Help kids see the connections between their own health and the health of the environment.
  • Provide experiential learning for the entire curriculum.
  • Get kids outdoors and help them develop bonds with the natural world.
  • Help kids develop character qualities essential for success and happiness, like responsibility, patience, cooperation, initiative, and self-esteem.
  • Enhance community and generate pride of place.

Challenges & Dilemmas 

Participants agreed the biggest challenges to sustaining school gardens are:  1) funding them long-term, and 2) integrating them into the curriculum.  Other real or perceived challenges included:

  • Our schools compete for scarce resources.
  • Our schools don’t communicate with each other.
  • High turnover in schools undermines long-term continuity.
  • Past school gardens were destroyed by vandalism, animal pests, uninformed landscaping services, or just neglect.
  • It’s hard to find skilled gardeners to teach and oversee operations – few people have gardening expertise these days.
  • Volunteers have to be recruited for summer care.
  • Suitable sunny sites with water access might be hard to find.
  • Access to school gardens is unequal in the district.
  • Town and school administrators aren’t supportive.
  • Teachers don’t have time to find ways to connect curriculum to the garden.
  • Sustaining a school garden long-term takes more than a few dedicated parents – it takes a community.

Opportunities & Possibilities 

These are some of the possibilities that bubbled up in the conversations:

  • Let’s connect school gardens to the big PEP grant the district recently received [[this was received in 2013 and will amount to about $600,000 over three years].
  • Let’s use school gardens to improve student health, address obesity and enhance well-being.
  • Contrary to what many think, Watertown has plenty of open space for gardens – let’s repurpose some recreation space and lawns.
  • Let’s make edible school gardens part of a larger initiative to green our school landscapes – how about flowers, benches and paths where we could meet up or just relax?
  • Let’s connect school gardens to school composting, or even town-wide composting.
  • Let’s connect school gardens to school cafeterias, and to after-school cooking clubs.
  • Let’s use school gardens to teach kids with learning disabilities—engaging with the garden will enable these kids to shine.

Next Steps – Models for Sustaining School Gardens 

Despite the challenges, hundreds of communities in the United States, from California to Maine, are making school gardens work through networks and partnerships. Such models develop relationships and have greater clout than individual schools. Also, resources within networks can be bundled and best practices shared.  For example, California has nearly 4000 school gardens, of which:

  • 45 percent are partnered with a nonprofit charitable organization.
  • 28 percent are funded by their school district.
  • 17 percent are supported by partnerships with a university or farm cooperative extension.

If partnerships and networks are essential for long-term success, what could we create in Watertown that would take this initiative to the next level?

Thank You! 

Sincere thanks to everyone who participated in this important gathering.  Special thanks to Meghan O’Connell for scribing and to Chef Stephen Menyhart for providing a beautiful array of refreshments. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you all!


Elizabeth Kaplan, Anna Yoo, Judy Beecher, & Victoria Thatcher


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