Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How community activism brought vegetables to the schoolyards of Montgomery County, Maryland

Photo courtesy MCPS
School vegetable gardens:  a great way to get kids outside, to teach lessons about nature, and to improve childhood nutrition?  Or a menace to safety and a nuisance to maintenance staff?

That's the debate that's played out in Montgomery County over the last couple of years, although nearly everyone concerned seems to have been firmly of the first opinion and in fact that opinion has prevailed.  You may have noticed the controversy popping up in local media here and there, and wondered what was going on.  Here's a brief summary from my perspective as a minor participant in the process.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) issued its School Garden Guidelines in September of 2008, largely in response to concerns that gardens were often established by classes, clubs and PTAs but not maintained, and that some plants might not be safe for children.  MCPS staff worked with University of Maryland Extension (UME) Master Gardeners (MGs) and garden education experts from the Audubon Naturalist Society's (ANS) GreenKids program to develop templates and resources for several model gardens that focused on native plants and pollinators.  Over the next year, ANS and the MGs worked with a number of schools to establish successful gardens that fed curriculum needs and, due to the requirement that garden proposals include a maintenance plan, were less likely to be abandoned.

However, a number of observers began to notice that applications for gardens that included edible plants were routinely turned down by MCPS.  This was in the same period that First Lady Michelle Obama was establishing a vegetable garden at the White House, and food gardening was a burgeoning trend all over -- including at Grow It Eat It!  The irony was not lost on the MGs nor on Gordon Clark, Project Director of Montgomery Victory Gardens (MVG), who began to publicize the de facto MCPS no-edibles policy and urge community and governmental groups to help change it.

In December of 2009, County Councilmember Valerie Ervin, who had been a champion of community gardens as established by Montgomery Parks, scheduled a public work session of Council committees to discuss school and community gardens.  Many MGs and other interested members of the public watched as MCPS staff testified that school vegetable gardens were difficult to maintain, attracted vermin, were dangerous to children with allergies, and promoted use of pesticides (forbidden by MCPS rules except in dire circumstances).  While sitting in the hearing room I read the draft of a document written by UME MG Coordinator and Grow It Eat It (GIEI) founder Jon Traunfeld that countered many of these problems and questions.  "Food Safety in the School Garden" is now available at the GIEI website.

In late February of 2010, county school superintendent Jerry Weast sent a memo to the Board of Education outlining MCPS objections to allowing edible gardens on school property, although he did follow up on a proposal made at the Council work session that MCPS work with Montgomery Parks to find sites near schools for community gardens.  (They have, in fact, found several sites on MCPS-owned non-school property on which community gardens open to the public can be built, and work is ongoing to establish those.)  MVG and the MGs began to write a letter in reply to Weast, which was finally completed in May and delivered in June after a number of community organizations had signed it as well.  (This list of organizations continued to grow and by September had reached over 30, including the ANS and the Montgomery County Commission on Health.  During the winter, the Montgomery County Council of PTAs issued their own statement urging the establishment of school food gardens.)

In October, the County Council met in their capacity as the Board of Health and heard testimony from the Commission on Health and MVG in favor of allowing vegetable gardens at schools.  By this time, the tide seemed to have turned, and in fact beginning in July, UME staff, MGs, and representatives from ANS and Parks had begun meeting with MCPS staff to explore options.

Together they reached the conclusion that the best first step was to develop guidelines for edible gardens in containers, and with admirable speed put together the Creating Your Edible Container Garden website.  This resource went online at the end of January and is available to MCPS staff, parents and students to use RIGHT NOW, so please spread the word!  The site includes links to many educational sites and lots of horticultural advice from GIEI.  Master Gardeners are available to advise about site selection and provide mentoring during the growing season; contact information is on the site.

More support is available through classes scheduled this spring by Montgomery College.  Click on the link and put "garden" in the search box to find the Garden Educator Training Course for those working with youth, and the Suburban Gardener Program for anyone interested in learning more about vegetable gardening.

MCPS staff have stated publicly that although container gardens are recommended to start with, applications for in-ground or raised bed gardens that meet all criteria will be approved.  Let's hope that soon enough we'll have many Montgomery County schools with gardens as educational and lovely as the one at Hampstead Hill Academy in Baltimore, shown off in the GIEI-produced video "How to Start a School Garden."  Learning, nutrition, and fun:  let's get kids growing and eating in the outdoor classroom this spring.

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