By Erin Weber
On September 12, 2013, the Orfalea Foundation and 1% for the Planet convened Seeds-To-Systems, an exclusive group of philanthropists, businesses, and policy-makers to discuss the long-term sustainability of school garden programs.
“We convened this diverse group of 25 leaders, who have collectively invested $26,000,000 in school gardens, to discuss innovative ways to ensure school gardens survive beyond their initial investments,” said Kathleen de Chadenèdes, Director of the Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative. Attendees shared the key lessons of successful garden-based programming, gleaned from their own experience, including obstacles, key successes, funding mechanisms, policy reform and opportunities for future collaboration.
Teacher engagement was identified as an essential element in maximizing the value of school gardens. Participants agreed to prioritize empowering teachers to feel comfortable and competent in the garden by providing professional development trainings for educators to maintain and utilize the garden.
One challenge faced by teachers and garden managers is access to clear, garden-based curriculum to guide their lessons. Although a choice of curricula already exists, attendees wondered if standardizing curriculum would help sustain food literacy programming. Others countered that teachers and administrators need curriculum that is customized and feels personal to their campus.
Participants also explored which public policy options could help leverage their collective investment in school gardens. Although there is some state and federal momentum around outdoor food-literacy programming, most elected officials still view gardens as “nice, but not essential” teaching tools.
Professional garden managers and volunteer coordinators were identified as central elements for the sustainability of school gardens. Buy-in from school administrators and community partners were also cited as critical components of sustainability.
Stakeholders highlighted the often strained relationship between service providers and funders. Non-profits feel pressured to validate their programs with data and have found that funders do not always fully understand the day-to-day realities of their work. Funders wrestled with whether they should fund breadth over depth. Grant-makers wondered if they were funding the right programs and what, if any, stipulations they should require of grantees to encourage long-term ownership of the school garden.
Based on priorities culled from the wide-ranging conversation, attendees expressed interest in a future convening around the issues of public policy and evaluation. Funders and service providers agreed that their hope for the future is that every school has a sustainable garden, which is used by all grade levels to teach a variety of subjects. Ideally, each garden would be embraced as a classroom by students, teachers, legislators, and the community at large. Naturally, questions remained about how to achieve this vision, but the convening concluded with each participant reporting on steps they will take to ensure school gardens exist as a learning tool for future generations.
According to Orfalea Foundation President Lois Mitchell, Seeds-to-Systems represents one of her organization’s key roles in promoting systemic change. “We have found great value in facilitating broad, cross-sector dialogue on state and national issues. Gatherings like this not only encourage the sharing of best practices, but the creation of new best practices.”
The advantages of gardens as teaching environments are well documented, but the practicalities of establishing, maintaining, and integrating the gardens into educational culture present many challenges. We are encouraged that so many diverse stakeholders have come together to address these practical issues, and look forward to building sustainable models for school gardens in the coming months and years.