In 2001, a small group of Sonoma County school garden coordinators met while attending the School Garden Teacher Training program at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. “A few of us started to talk about pooling our resources and sharing funding and best practices at our schools” says Ruth Roberson, one of the founders of the School Garden Network of Sonoma County (SGN), which was established as a nonprofit in 2003.
Today, SGN’s mission “To support and promote sustainable garden and nutrition-based learning programs, connect school communities with fresh, locally grown foods, and provide a forum for exchanging information and resources” is supported by an online bulletin board that includes curricular resources, free seeds and plants, workshops, grants and what’s happening at school garden in Sonoma County and beyond.
The most significant obstacle for school garden and nutrition programs is funding. SGN raises money to help bridge this gap. Since 2003, SGN has provided more than $120,000 in grants to 22 schools to support garden coordinators, cooking and salad bar programs. It generally funds two to four schools annually but this school year was able to fund five. In addition to financial support, SGN provides the schools with individual mentoring.
Local school gardens
School gardens are outdoor living laboratories for hands-on learning in many subjects, including science, math, reading, environmental studies, nutrition and health. Some programs also include instruction on cooking fresh produce from the garden, farmers’ markets, salad bars, partnerships with local farms and other strategies to introduce locally grown produce into the cafeteria or classroom. Children are born naturalists, and school garden programs can serve as the ideal way to engage all their senses and curiosity.
Sonoma County is home to more than 100 school gardens. While each is unique, two exemplary gardens funded by SGN are at Wright Charter School in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg Elementary School.
Julia Valentine, Wright Charter School garden coordinator, explains the blossoming of its garden program, now offered as an elective for the middle school. “Having a school garden in this community is a gift. The majority of our students live in crowded conditions with little outdoor space. Having a garden of this size and scope may be the single point of interaction many of them have with the natural world. The wonderment, joy and intellectual stimulation the students receive is priceless.”
"It’s a great way to hit all the areas of your curriculum through a theme,” says Vikki DuRee, Healdsburg Elementary kindergarten teacher/school garden coordinator. “We have literature related to the garden, math in calculating worm population or measuring plant growth and physical sciences, like structure of soil and types of rocks. The garden here is a veritable ecosystem, and perhaps even its own little planet to those who dwell in its borders. We live in an agricultural community, and we’re building a connection to that.”
While there’s no easy way to measure food and agricultural literacy, studies have noted positive changes in attitudes about fruits and vegetables after students received a combination of direct instruction and hands-on school gardening activities. These studies show this combination may be effective in influencing behaviors over the long term. This is important, because healthy eating habits are more likely to persist into adulthood if established in the elementary years.
Other SGN connections
In addition to the grant making programs, SGN also administers the Schoolyard Habitat Program, offered nationally by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which is helping teachers and students create wildlife habitat for classroom field studies and observations. And since most school gardens serve only elementary schools, the Healthy Roots Program is a free, traveling nutrition education program that provides hands-on lessons for students in grades 7 to 12.
School garden teams are a resourceful bunch finding creative ways to sustain their beloved programs. Salmon Creek Middle School in west Sonoma County was awarded a SGN grant to increase the number of students served by the salad bar. The school has a large, developed garden site, and,“Last year, enough produce was grown to supply the salad bar and the cooking program, and the extra produce was sold to school families, raising $4,000 for the program," says George Macros, a local farmer and SGN mentor.
Farm-to-school activities are valued in Sonoma County, and SGN has been able to raise funds mainly from local businesses, foundations, fund-raisers and individuals. Community volunteers are also an essential part of the organization. In the words of Don Russell, former assistant superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education,“It gives kids a chance to get real-world experience and, in our days of being green and more concerned about the environment and good health, it all comes together here.”
Lisa Preschel, former director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center School Garden Training Program, is current interim executive director of School Garden Network of Sonoma County (SGN).
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Located at 1410 Neotomas Ave. in Santa Rosa,NorthBay biz magazine is a monthly business-to-business publication covering Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties. This year, the magazine is celebrating 43 years of continuous operation. It originally hit the stands in 1975, when it was called Sonoma Business, and only covered Sonoma County. Norm and Joni Rosinski and John Dennis, acquired it in 2000 and changed its name to cover an expanded market. Today, the magazine is part of Amaturo Sonoma Media Group. More here..