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Man in Overalls - How to Start a School Garden: Build a Team

 You want to teach kids where their food comes from because if kids grow it, they'll be more likely to eat it, and since you hope to improve kids diets, offer a little exposure to the natural world and provide outdoor, hands-on, STEM learning experiences, or simply, you want child to have an opportunity to care for something and learn responsibility.

So you want to start a school garden.

I understand. School gardens can be beautiful opportunities for schools to engage kids, parents, and community partners in a collective effort that spills over into all manner of benefit for kids, the school, and the community as a whole.
Regrettably, I've seen lots of school gardens grow into weedy plots that are ultimately reclaimed by turf grass. This is often the case in spite of inspiring community build days where 10, 20, 30 even 50 people come out to get a school garden started. I hear similar stories from Kristi Hatakka, Farm to School Garden Specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). (They've got great resources by the way, including the School Garden Guide that I wrote back in 2013, which they updated last year.)

So you want to start a school garden. And you want it to succeed and continue growing into the future. 

Basically there are two routes that lead to thriving school gardens: 1)Find the money, or 2)Build your team. Or, more simply: money or people.

In terms of money, it's rare but-- who knows-- maybe your school has extra cash on hand for a "beatification project," or maybe you're a fundraising genius and serve on the PTO board.  With money in hand, you can hire someone like to me design, build, handle weekly maintenance, provide educational support to teachers, and otherwise facilitate your school garden.  Sometimes, the money is in the hands of a local nonprofit that has a mission aligned with school gardening. Kristi with FDACS says that some of the most successful school gardens around the state have "a very active nonprofit or entity that maintains or works with a very active parent or two." This is a great model because teachers -- more often than not-- are simply stretched too thin to make it happen without a lot of external support. Exemplary school garden related nonprofits around the state include: The Edible Peace Patch Project (in Pinellas), Memory Trees (Palm Beach), Miami Dade Education Fund, Keep Tampa Beautiful, Damayan Garden Project (Tallahassee). 

But then, maybe you don't have money; there's no school garden nonprofit around; the nonprofits that do that sort of thing aren't taking on new projects, or they are only offering minimal materials grants or garden-build volunteers.  That's not enough, so what do you do?

You build a school garden team: teachers, parents, kids, community partners, grandpa Jones, anyone... so long as they have some related interest.

When I help build school garden teams, I use an ABCD or asset based community development approach. In essence, this is the idea that everyone has assets to bring to the table, or more simply, everyone has something to offer. Everyone has things they know (skills, ideas, knowledge), things they have (time, tools, money, materials), and connections to other people and groups, which have assets of their own.  This is the philosophy I take with me as I start talking with people about the idea of a school garden. 

The flip side of the ABCD coin is that everyone has a dream. Unless there is an exchange, a sense that people are in someway getting something they want (out of participating), any sharing of their assets and participation or support of a school garden is going to be short lived. If you're going to effectively rally & sustain a school garden team, you need to think like the below community garden partner map developed by the American Community Gardening Association. What does the school garden get? And what does the school garden team member get? It's got to go both ways.
With this in mind, let me stop while I'm ahead before I end up re-writing the entire School Garden Guide I developed with FDACS. The guide will take you step by step through how to build a school garden team.

[As an aside, if you're looking for inspiring school & youth garden leaders here in NE Florida, you ought to know about Success Gardening's work at First Coast High School, Urban Geoponics's New Town Urban Farm, YMCA's Seed Differently program, the Eastside Environmental Council's school garden projects, I'm a Star Foundation's youth farm dream, and I hear there are many more. If you know of any impressive school or youth gardening efforts, please tell me, so I can keep learning.]

Let me close by offering you a magical question, one that has helped me build more teams and groups than I can count. When I'm trying to tease out whether someone might be interested in joining an effort or to see if they might be willing to offer some sort of support-- and to do so without putting them or guard and to provide them with an easy way out in case they aren't actually interested but don't want to disappoint me,  I lead in with "So I was talking with so-and-so about the idea of starting a school garden here at _________. They said...." and then I ask, "Who else do you know who might be interested in the idea of a school garden?" 

Happy Growing.

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