MCPS says schools can grow vegetables in container gardens.
Score one for the gardeners.
After an 18-month campaign by community activists, Montgomery County Public Schools have decided that teaching kids how to grow vegetables could provide valuable lessons—not to mention fresh greens for tasting.
Last week, MCPS posted new guidelines for schools that want to create edible container gardens. The guidelines can be found at www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/curriculum/outdoored.
It’s a big win for Montgomery Victory Gardens, a nonprofit group that led the advocacy campaign for edible gardens along with the University of Maryland Extension Master Gardeners of Montgomery County and about two dozen other local groups. Even the Montgomery Commission on Health joined the fight.
Advocates had pressed MCPS to allow the growing of school vegetable gardens, something that’s no big deal in some local school districts and an idea that became a national symbol for efforts to curb childhood obesity when First Lady Michelle Obama planted one at the White House.
MCPS schools have been allowed to grow other kinds of gardens. All over the county, there are rain gardens, shade gardens, sun gardens and even gardens grown to attract butterflies on school property.
So why not vegetables?
MCPS hadn’t officially banned vegetable gardens, but the Department of Facilities Management wouldn’t approve requests. School officials were concerned about pests, maintenance, food allergies, and the possible locations for gardens. But some schools grew them anyway. One Silver Spring elementary school has long cultivated a large plot of vegetables and berries as well as fruit trees in a small orchard.
School officials changed their minds over the past year and the guidelines were developed by the Department of Facilities Management, in partnership with MCPS Outdoor Education and Environmental Programs, the Master Gardeners and other interested groups.
Now, as long as a school submits a site plan for approval and chooses vegetables from an approved list, students could soon be adding the skills of weeding and watering to reading, writing, and arithmetic.
“We view this as a critical first step toward planting the full range of vegetable gardens that are currently being employed at schools throughout the nation,” say Gordon Clark, project director of Montgomery Victory Gardens.
But will schools be allowed to serve the vegetables?
That’s the crux of issue for advocates of nutritious school lunches, who want to see students served more fresh produce, preferably grown locally and even outside classroom windows. While no one expects that these gardens could feed a school, advocates hope that exposure to growing vegetables will lead students to try new foods and make healthier eating choices, Clark says.
“Certainly being able to taste that food is a big part of it,” Clark says. “Eight times out of 10, if the kid tastes something that they’ve grown themselves, they’ll like it.”
Laurie Jenkins, coordinator of MCPS’s Outdoor and Environmental Education programs, and Marla Caplon, nutrition director for the schools, say the container garden produce can be used in two ways: Teachers can serve the vegetables during a small tasting party at school or the food can be harvested and provided to soup kitchens or homeless shelters.
“As long as the vegetables are properly handled, stored and washed, there is no reason that they could not be served to students,” the officials said in an e-mail. “However, that being said, these gardens are not designed to provide any percentage of quantity that a cafeteria would require for meal service. Gardens—vegetable or otherwise—provide a hands-on learning experience for our students that cross many areas of the curriculum.”
Even though the guidelines don’t spell it out, schools can actually plant in-ground or raised bed gardens as long as their plans are approved. Such plans “will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” according to Sean Gallagher of MCPS’s Environmental Services Division.
Clark says advocates are under no illusion that teachers and schools have lots of extra time to dedicate to maintaining vegetable gardens. So, like with many other worthwhile initiatives that aren’t part of the MCPS curriculum, parents may have to take the lead if they want something to sprout.
Anyone willing to dig in?