Urban gardening has found a stronghold in backyard and community plots and now, with some help from one organization, urban gardening is making its move into St. Louis schools.
The bigger picture for urban gardening
The volunteers at the St. Louis Slow Food Movement see a bigger picture for urban gardening – one that involves the cultivation of a food culture. And for that to happen, volunteers say, efforts have to begin in the schools.
So Slow Food began the Time for Lunch campaign, working to get healthier food into kids’ lunches and reconnect kids with the craft of growing their own food. At one informational event, Kelly Childs, a slow food volunteer, quickly learned her group wasn’t the only one concerned with what kids are eating.
“A number of moms showed up just asking how do I get healthier food into my kid’s school lunch?” Childs said.
But this campaign isn’t the first effort to beef up the health standards of school lunches.
The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, passed under President Obama in 2010, also works to improve what kids are eating at school. But Kelly doesn’t think the bill does enough to teach the kids the value of what they eat.
“They have set forth the standards by nutrition versus they need vegetables or whatnot," Childs said. "So I had a school principal contact me ‘cause they were serving Entenmann's donuts for breakfast and those donuts fit within the nutritional standards … and that’s the problem.”
Starting in St. Louis
So the St. Louis Slow Food branch decided to help schools start their own vegetable gardens, providing kids with a more hands-on experience with food.
The first garden they helped fund was at the small, private school of Shining Rivers in St. Louis.
The school, run out of two houses in the middle of a residential neighborhood, puts a strong emphasis on getting kids in touch with nature. Students spend time outdoors in all seasons, building shelters, playing in the dirt and working in any of the school’s three gardens.
“You can see we have lettuce, carrots, beans, everything is coming up,” said Anne Weideman, the school's director, who we met up with, along with Kelly, at the school's edible garden.
We talked about how the garden has helped instill a food culture within the students.
“You know it’s not just putting a garden in and saying 'oh you know, it’s cool, we can grow some vegetables, isn’t that neat,'" Weideman said."We’re showing them physically that this can be done and that it can actually be a viable job.”
Creating a food culture
A light rain coated the ground as we walked around the garden. Rows of carrots and broccoli heads were starting to pop out of the ground, and for a minute it seemed odd that kids would be willing, if not excited, to eat the myriad of vegetables planted before us. But Weideman says the vegetables rarely make it back into the classroom before they’re shoved into a child’s mouth.
"Well, it’s amazing the excitement that’s created around picking it out of the garden yourself," Weideman said. "I mean they almost cannot help but just eat it. It’s so exciting that like we’ve waited for this. We almost don’t care what it tastes like or that we should have some aversion to it in some way.”
Bebe, a third grader, planted only carrots this year. He says he loves the times outdoors and charting what he’s going to plant. But, in true kid fashion, there’s another aspect of gardening that he likes the most.
“Let’s see here … I got to say getting dirty,” Bebe said.
Now Slow Food St. Louis is working to help other schools start their own gardens. But Kelly knows this won’t be easy. Her organization isn’t just trying to teach kids the value of growing their own food. It’s trying to change the way the students and everyone look at food.
“It’s essentially creating a food culture, how community and family and friends and relationships come together around food in some ways,” Kelly said.
For Slow Food, the mission is bringing the farm to the table. And now that the Shining Rivers’ garden is celebrating its third year, Kelly hopes to bring gardens into more schools around St. Louis.