Student-grown vegetable gardens can get kids excited about nutrition, science and the outdoors, according to a coalition of parents, educators and others who want Tacoma Public Schools to foster more garden programs throughout the district.
They recently asked the Tacoma School Board for changes in district guidelines so that more students can learn about gardening and eat what they harvest from school gardens.
After hearing from the group, Superintendent Carla Santorno assigned school district attorney Renee Trueblood and district Chief Operations Officer Steve Murakami to explore what other districts are doing. The two will help develop clear policies and protocols for school gardens.
“The goal is to be able to get to ‘yes’ more easily, while still protecting student health and safety,” school district spokesman Dan Voelpel said.
The coalition has also asked for:
▪ More vigilance over the use of pesticides or herbicides in landscaping near school gardens. According to the district, spraying is prohibited within 50 feet of a school garden. But parents said chemicals sometime drift into garden spaces.
▪ A district composting program that includes support from the city of Tacoma. This would “complete the circle of learning for the students, from growing and harvesting to eating and returning what we do not consume back to the land,” said parent Clara Cheeves.
Jenny deMars, a master gardener and gardening educator at Lowell Elementary School, said school gardens are “a gateway to learning healthy nutrition.”
Students who grow food in school gardens inevitably want to try it, she said. But district concerns several years ago over potential food handling and liability issues halted that practice at Lowell, which has had a garden on school grounds for many years.
DeMars said some school districts around the state not only allow students to sample the food they grow at school but also serve it in their cafeterias.
Several parents pointed to practices in the Franklin Pierce School District, which owns a 10-acre farm worked by students that supplies produce to school and community nutrition programs.
A school district as innovative as Tacoma should be a champion for school garden education
Master Gardener Jenny deMars
“A school district as innovative as Tacoma should be a champion for school garden education,” deMars said. “We need a policy that makes sense, is districtwide and follows approved USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) school garden safety guidelines.”
Several garden programs are located on Tacoma school grounds, and some high schools offer career and technical education classes that include gardening. A horticulture program at Lincoln High School grows food for local food banks.
In 2013, Tacoma Public Schools signed an agreement with the Washington State University Extension program that allowed schools to grow gardens through a WSU program.
The agreement was designed to ensure that food produced and eaten through the program complies with health regulations and USDA guidelines. It also included nutrition education.
Voelpel said that agreement runs through Dec. 31, 2018.
Linda Mathews, WSU Pierce County Extension coordinator, said there’s currently no active programming from her agency in Tacoma schools, in part because of staffing cuts. But she said the department provides resources and materials for teachers and students.
Extension is operating programs in neighboring districts, including Franklin Pierce, Mathews said.
She and others point to the increasing popularity of school gardening programs around the country and the state. Supporters say gardens teach kids not only about the science and art of growing food, but also about working together and achieving goals.
That’s particularly important for students in urban areas, where they might not have access to backyard gardens, Mathews said.
“The applications for students in urban areas is huge,” she said. “It’s beyond producing food.”