Edible Gardens Sprouting Up Across Chicago Public Schools!

September 25, 2013

School gardens sprout.

Until recently, the only person, er, animal, reaping the benefits of Murphy Elementary School edible gardens on Chicago’s North Side was Murphy, the school’s beloved iguana. That will all change soon, come harvest time, when the colorful fruits, herbs and vegetables—bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, jalapeños, basil tomatoes and more—will feed the school’s students and staff.

Murphy is one of eight schools to join Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) “Eat What You Grow” pilot program, which gives schools the training and resources to safely grow, harvest and prepare produce in edible gardens to then serve in the school cafeteria. Murphy and Nathanael Greene Elementary are already gearing up to harvest this season. According to CPS School Garden Coordinator Drew Thomas, three more schools—Taft High School, Orozco Academy and Northside Learning Center—will be in good shape to harvest.

Other schools have already held successful harvests. Earlier this year, Miles Davis Magnet Academy, one of the first schools to pilot Eat What You Grow, harvested 13 pounds of lettuce from a plot the size of a small table. It was enough lettuce to supply the cafeteria for one day. The impact of this garden-to-cafeteria program goes beyond supplying dining services with ultra-local produce. It offers a meaningful educational experience where students can draw personal connections between their food and their health.

Penny Schultz, a 1st grade teacher at Murphy, says the edible garden was the result of a grant the preschool teachers received from the American Heart Association. For years, the school has had an ornamental garden, which teachers have used to teach children about everything from public space to environmental stewardship to plant-related vocabulary. Now, with the edible garden, teachers can add nutrition education to the list.

“Exposing them to healthy foods—you can’t beat that,” Schultz says. “All of our kids need to eat healthier. And if they know that they planted it, they picked it, they brought this out of the earth, they’ll be more likely to taste it.”

At a recent training, Schultz and the other dozen participants learned strategies for good health and hygiene, raised bed construction (unpainted cinder blocks and cedar were among the recommended materials) and how to involve students in the harvest.

“It was really helpful to see how you can involve the kids in a safe way with harvesting and bringing them even more into the process of bringing the food to the table,” Schultz says. “It’s so important for the students to have a sense of ownership in the garden.”

After the demonstration, participants had an opportunity to check out Murphy’s gardens. At Murphy, they plan to use the abundant peppers and tomatoes to make a delicious salsa. The possibilities are endless—and delicious.

HSC is pleased to see the growing (!) interest in school gardens.  If you are a CPS teacher, school administrator or staff member and are interested in bringing the Eat What You Grow program to your school, please contact Drew Thomas at the CPS Office of Student Health and Wellness, at 773-553-1031 or at dmthomas21@cps.edu.