Despite-and maybe even because of-their cultural differences, students of a low-income urban classroom come together to discover the many wonders of community gardening.

Despite the fact that I had almost never gardened and was known for my brown thumb (I know brown leaves mean too little water and yellow leaves mean too much water, but what do I do if mine are brown and yellow?), I decided to start a garden in which 300 elementary school students would grow food and learn about healthy eating. (Did I mention I knew nothing about nutrition?) I was new to my job in the Food Systems program at a nonprofit, and was eager to create a program linking children to food.

It was the Fall of 2005 when the principal of our local elementary school approved my plan. I had a handful of supportive teachers and a head full of daydreams in which I saved the neighborhood from obesity, diabetes, heart disease and whatever else comes from a lack of vegetables in one’s diet. A neighbor and a community gardening organization cleared and plowed a 30-foot by 40-foot rectangle of the school’s field for a garden.

And so, with no money for gardening supplies, no knowledge of growing vegetables and a Midwestern climate not conducive to growing food during the school year, the teachers and I set off to create a garden that would enhance and complement classroom lessons, allow students to grow and prepare food, connect urban kids to our planet and provide fresh vegetables to a low-income community.

The school is located in urban Michigan. Ninety-five percent of our students are on the federal free- and reduced-lunch program, indicating that they live at or below the poverty level. Many parents work multiple jobs, making it difficult to be actively involved in their children’s school. In fact, only two parents comprise the Parent-Teacher Organization. The neighborhood is a “food desert,” with no easy access to a full-service grocery store and, in turn, no easy access to healthy, fresh food. The community suffers from many ailments common to urban areas. And yet there’s something very compelling about this neighborhood. People are friendly. They start conversations while waiting for the bus or passing on the street. Neighbors grow vegetables in abandoned lots and even in their front yards. Strangers gather on warm nights for impromptu barbeques and basketball games, and there are community fairs and festivals every season.

What follows is a series of short stories, each of them a reflection on the garden, the children and the community I love. There are heartbreaks, tears and frustration, but those lows are counterbalanced by even more powerful highs, like when a child enjoys her first juicy tomato fresh off the vine or teaches an adult how to properly care for a garden. The stories show what a single garden at a single school in a single community can teach us.

My first lesson from the garden came in the Spring of 2006. After spending the winter discussing what a garden is, brainstorming what to grow (oranges with no skin, anyone?), and starting seeds in classrooms, it was time to plant. One kindergarten class chose to plant mammoth sunflowers, like those they read about in Sunflower House by Eve Bunting (Voyager Books, 1999). Outside, I watched each student carefully push a finger into the ground, gently drop a seed in the hole, and cover it back up with soil. They approached me after nearly every seed planted, their hands cupped and extended and their eyes looking up, asking for more seeds.

Some students wore burkas, their faces framed by folds of solid colored fabric. Others wore long, flowing African dresses with bright yellow and orange weaving in and out of one another, and some wore blue jeans and Bob the Builder t-shirts. Some were interrupting, talking over each other and pushing to obtain more seeds while others quietly hung in the back of the group, unable to speak English but still cautiously extending an open palm whenever a space cleared. Even if we had hundreds of acres to plant with sunflower seeds, it wouldn’t have been enough. They were eager to touch the soil, examine the worms and even eat the seeds. Many shoved fistfuls of seed into their pockets, and even though that was against the rules I pretended not to notice. After each student finished planting and had a turn with the watering can, we walked to a nearby playground. While some students played on the swings and slides, others went straight to the sandbox. Three began digging small holes with their hands and four more went off in search of seeds. Returning with fistfuls of “helicopter” (maple tree) seeds, they meticulously placed one helicopter in each hole and covered it with sand, just as we had done with sunflower seeds and soil. More students gathered leaves and twigs and made boxes around the “beds” so that others wouldn’t step where the seeds had been “planted.” While planting, some students spoke English, some spoke to each other in their native languages, and some communicated through hand motions, facial expressions and a little broken English.

As I watched the students plant maple tree seeds in the sandbox, I thought about how different they all were. The school teaches refugees from 23 countries, and students in this class came from Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Somalia, Mexico, Congo, Sudan and many more far away places. Yet, here they were, speaking different languages but still working together and cooperating to complete a task that has been part of all of our histories, all of our cultures and that is inherent to our species-no matter where in the world we come from.

Even though I knew the seeds would never grow in the sandbox, I handed the children a watering can for their new “garden.”

Katie Olender is the Food Systems Project Coordinator at the NorthWest Initiative, a community development non-profit organization. She is active in the local food movement, and is particularly focused on urban gardening as a means to food security for low-income communities.

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