Big Green Builds Student-Run Learning Gardens at Underserved Detroit Area Schools

When talk turns to our children and their future happiness and success, inevitably questions are raised about how we should properly nourish their minds and bodies. And because progression cannot happen without innovation, more specifically: how do we upset the status quo? Denver-based non-profit Big Green is taking on both issues simultaneously with their learning gardens and outdoor green spaces at underserved schools. Big Green collaborates with teachers and administrators to construct the gardens, and students are then charged with maintaining them – growing and harvesting real fruit and vegetables while learning lessons in nutrition, agriculture and business.

"When we go into a school district, our goal is to build in the elementary school, the middle school and the high school. We want students to have access to these learning gardens through their whole school career so (that) they're building healthy habits," says Ken Elkins, Big Green regional director. They want children to get "this information at every single level." Big Green has implemented this model in seven cities across the country: Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and, as of January, Detroit. Currently, the gardens have been established at 32 schools in and around the city. "We just finished our agreement with DPS, so we'll be collaborating with Detroit Public Schools' Garden Collaborative," Elkins says. The plan is be in at least five DPSCD schools by this spring.

For students in kindergarten through eighth grade, Big Green's Garden Bites program is standard. They learn proper nutrition and how to identify good foods from ones that should be avoided. They're also taught recipes and how to prepare easy, tasty foods that'll they'll actually want to eat, using the harvested crops. High schoolers learn within the Real Food Lab program, an entrepreneurial plan that works with the school's business or marketing department, and students put together a food-based business model. They determine what foods they'll grow according to the season, what type of workforce will be required and how much it'll cost, though Big Green provides the soil, seeds and other materials. During the summer months, Elkins says, "We pay the students and the teachers to actually go out and implement that business plan, whether it's selling it at restaurants or at a pop-up stand in their communities or at Eastern Market," for instance. "We have a garden educator that goes out and works with the schools, works with the teachers to figure out what they want to grow, to help them with their growing plan but then also to figure out the best way of implementing our curriculum into their current curriculum."

The schools that house Big Green's gardens pay nothing, Elkins says. "The majority of our funding comes from major donors, private foundations and corporations," he says. They're currently in talks with additional entities to make new gardens possible and impact even more children. Districts and schools interested in having Big Green build a learning garden on their grounds are encouraged to apply online. "It's a pretty detailed application process, but the reason being: we don't want to work on the school, we want to work with the school," Elkins says. "So, we want to make sure that this is something that the school wants and that the school buys in and that they really want us to implement this product."

If a garden is awarded, a landscape architect meets with school administration to help design the space. "Each space is custom built. We go out, we analyze the space and then we build it. Each space will have the same items in it, but it's arranged in a different way." From there, the program is launched and the Big Green team is closely involved for as long as the garden exists. "Big Green's mission is to build a healthier future for kids by connecting them to real food," Elkins says. They want to shine a spotlight on the prevalence of ailments like hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and childhood obesity – "a lot of things that plague our communities." He says, "We know that with this type of work, it's a long route, but the idea is that you can create healthy habits with young people," practices that Big Green hopes will stick with children into adulthood and into the next generation, and that maybe they'll be apt to "choose a bag of kale over a bag of chips."


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