Grow It Know It (GIKI) is an innovative and impactful year-round program that engages middle school students, school staff, university partners, and community members to understand and address “big picture” issues of poverty, food insecurity, and environmental sustainability through school gardens, hands-on educational activities, and workforce-development initiatives. A partnership between the Clarke County School District (CCSD), University of Georgia Extension, the University of Georgia Office of Service-Learning, and UGArden, GIKI leverages resources, including a network of AmeriCorps VISTAs, to implement, sustain and extend this effective integration of school gardens and nutrition education into the school curriculum and culture. Over its first four years, GIKI has demonstrably fostered student interest and engagement relating to agriculture, family and consumer science, environmental sustainability, social equality, and workforce skills.
RATIONALE and APPROACH
School gardens provide an invaluable venue for supporting hands-on and deepened learning in key fields such as biology, agriculture, family and consumer sciences, and nutrition, as well as in extending the curriculum to real-life skills such as gardening, teamwork, marketing/communication, and culinary arts. However, to be successful, schools need not only a knowledgeable person responsible for garden upkeep, maintenance, and production, but also help in developing or identifying appropriate, standards-based lessons and activities that engage students in hands-on, active learning in the garden and with food—from seed to harvest to kitchen to table to compost. A network of full-time, 12-month AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America) serve all four middle schools, supervised by a program coordinator helping coordinate consistent programming across schools and providing continuity with the overarching vision of the program. Each VISTA builds capacity by identifying needs and priorities, then organizing resources and volunteers from the community, school, and UGA to support and sustain each school’s programs. GIKI’s gardening and nutritional programming is developed collaboratively with the principal, staff, students, and resources available at each school, but because there is a network, lessons learned are shared and become replicable. For example, VISTAs addressed the identified need of cafeteria food waste by organizing a middle-school student sustainability group to learn about composting and help collect compostable material, and by recruiting service-learning and community volunteers to manage the school’s compost pile and incorporate the compost into the garden.
PROGRAM ACTIVITIES and ACCOMPLISHMENTS
At each middle school, Grow It Know It currently supports five program areas: (1) School Gardens. Through after school programing, in-class lessons, and family and consumer science labs, Grow It Know It directly engages students in school gardening, greenhouse management, farm animal care, nutrition education, and sustainability. During the 2016-17 school year alone, GIKI recorded over 6,000 hours in the field and supported 500 unique community volunteers. (2) The Kitchen Garden Corps (KGC). Grow It Know It runs the KGC, a summer program that combines gardening, cooking, construction, and entrepreneurial skills for a powerhouse experience. For eight weeks each summer, about 25 CCSD middle school students build skills and teamwork as they operate both the “farm” and a “farm-to-table” restaurant, preparing and serving a weekly three-course lunch to over 40 community customers each week, with support from professional chefs. In summer 2017, the KGC raised more than $4,000 in donations to cover program costs, and engaged over 70 different young adults for nearly 3,400 hours of workforce and skills development. (3) School Cafeteria Composting and Resource Conservation. Grow It Know It organizes a group of students and staff at each school into “sustainability squads” to coordinate cafeteria resource management. Diverting food waste to the school compost bins and saving uneaten fruit from lunch, the squads reduce waste and redistribute uneaten fruit to hungry students. During the 2016-17school year, the programs collected over 11,000 pounds of compost, recycled over 3,000 pounds of waste, and routed more than 3,300 pounds of fresh fruit to hungry kids rather than the trash can. (4) School Produce Markets. GIKI organizes weekly produce markets at Clarke Middle and Hilsman Middle Schools, providing fresh produce grown by UGA students at the UGArden to the Athens-Clarke County community at an affordable price. (Additionally, those using SNAP benefits purchase produce at a 50% discount to further encourage healthy eating and reduce food insecurity.) During 2016-17, the produce markets provided over $3,000 to support GIKI’s middle school gardening and nutrition programs. (5) “Meals in the Middle” Community Benefit Dinners. Throughout the year, GIKI develops students’ skills, teamwork, and civic engagement by bringing together the four middle schools, the Athens Community Career Academy (ACCA), and UGArden with student-powered community dinners that raise funds for important causes in the Athens community. This collaboration provides service-learning and civic engagement opportunities for CCSD and UGA students alike. To date, Meals in the Middle has raised over $6,000 for local area non-profits and educational opportunities.
UGA researchers collaborated with Clarke Middle School to examine the impact of Grow It Know It at the school, demonstrating that this program provides unique opportunities for students to collaborate and to build relationships across socioeconomic and racial lines. For instance, participating sixth graders drew upon their experiences with GIKI programming to suggest community-based solutions to address food insecurity, such as starting community gardens or produce stands in areas that lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The research findings led to several professional development opportunities for CCSD educators during the 2016-2017 school year, including, a pre-planning session focused on teaching about sustainability, and a monthly CCSD school garden discussion group.
RECOGNITION AND REPLICATION
Grow It Know It has been cited as a model farm to school program by Georgia Organics and by former USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon. For three consecutive years (2015, 2016, and 2017), CCSD has been honored for their farm to school accomplishments with the highest level award, the “Golden Radish,” given by the Georgia Departments of Education, Agriculture, and Health, and in 2015 CCSD was recognized as the Outstanding School District in the state for farm to school programming, based in part on GIKI’s success. In collaboration with the Athens Land Trust and Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful, GIKI was also awarded a Georgia Organics grant for the Athens-Clarke County “Farm to School Champions” recognition program. Grow It Know It has also inspired observational site visits, conference calls, and meetings by representatives from other schools and non-profits in other school districts (including Barrow, Burke, Hall, and Walton Counties in Georgia, as well as school districts in South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia). GIKI has offered school garden training sessions at the Georgia Organics Conference and the Georgia Organics Farm to School Summit. The GIKI program model will also be featured in an upcoming Extension Agent training for school gardens to be held at UGArden in March 2018.