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Oct. 7, 2010

Growing gardens, growing minds

by Srividya Murthy, Print Managing News Editor
Today's students are taught to be environmentally aware. They know the importance of a greener Earth. Blair has recycling bins in nearly every corner of the school. But now, it's time to bring environmentalism into the classroom. Under the new Environmental Literacy Program enacted on Sept. 21 by the Maryland Board of Education, all state schools are required to incorporate environmental education into their science curricula.

It's valuable to conduct lessons and study books that teach how to conserve the environment, but those lessons can only be enforced through practical application. Planting vegetable gardens is one simple way to cement the lessons learned in the classroom. The only problem is MCPS's Feb. 26 ban on vegetable gardens in schools.

School garden supporters, including Montgomery Victory Gardens and Master Gardeners (community gardening organizations in Montgomery County) have sent numerous letters and created petitions attempting to lift the ban. The county has recently compromised by allowing gardens on school property not on campus. Some of these areas are within a few blocks from schools, while others are much farther away. Even though these gardens would still be on school property, they would be a lot less accessible during the school day and would separate student gardeners from watching the garden's growth process.

Gardens have a natural place near schools. Gordon Clark, project director of Montgomery Victory Gardens, described how any academic subject found in the classroom - science, math, art, history, social studies, cultural studies and many other classes - can be enriched through lessons in the garden. Students can create vegetable dyes in art class and build muscles in physical education while digging holes and weeding. Students can learn statistics through plant growth in math class and discuss global conservation in social studies.
But academic learning isn't the only education that can take place in the gardens. They also prepare students for the real life ahead, increasing their community involvement and environmental awareness, developing their social skills and inspiring them to follow healthy eating habits.

Considering vegetable gardens' countless benefits, the ban doesn't seem to make sense, but MCPS believes that gardens could be dangerous due to possible student allergies to garden produce. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the most common allergies in children are eggs, milk, peanuts and tree nuts. MCPS has not decided to ban any of these foods from school cafeterias, and yet has found ways around the special needs. If MCPS can accommodate dietary restrictions in cafeterias then they can in vegetable gardens. Clark and Sheryl Freishtat, president of Master Gardeners, have proposed a simple solution: if there are several students with the same vegetable allergy, the school could decide not to grow that specific vegetable.

The increase of rats and insects on school property is another concern that MCPS has expressed. According to Clark, the Montgomery County Department of Parks has grown several community gardens, none of which has had major issues with pest infestation. Even if there were insects, he offered, they could be managed and wouldn't harm students.

In fact, according to Horticulture Science and AP Environmental Science teacher Chris Brown, fighting pests could help his students gain more from the gardening experience. "All the planting students do is in the greenhouse, using potted soil," he described. By planting in a vegetable garden, students could experience gardening with real soil and dealing with pest management. Brown is even sure that if gardens were allowed, his students would be excited to help maintain it. Opponents cite summer maintenance of the gardens as a problem, but members of the community could help manage the gardens, or summer jobs could be provided to students.

MCPS is justified in its caution towards gardens, as student health must always be the top priority. But the school system can definitely overcome the difficulties. "It's fun, that's the very important thing. It's a lot of fun," Clark said. "I know I love to do it, and I know a lot of people who love to do it. It's a fantastic way for young people to learn about good nutrition, healthy lifestyle and the environment - by growing their own food."

Integrating school gardens would bridge the gap between learning and fun, education and application. They would require precautions and effort to be successful, but what students can take from the experience is worth it.

Call your Board of Education members today and tell them that students should be able to grow vegetable gardens in school.



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  • Dr. Donald Snyder (View Email) on October 15, 2010 at 7:18 PM
    Geat story and on target - I think students get it and the board doesn't.
    DCS - Montgomery County Master Gardener
  • Beth Anderson (View Email) on October 21, 2010 at 8:07 AM
    I work with children who have allergies and I know that MCPS has a good reputation for minimizing their exposure. But if the schools are going to use the plant allergy argument, they would need to ban grass and trees from the school grounds because these are more common allergens than vegetables. I don't see that happening. In fact, I have seen school grounds that have significant issues with ragweed - presumably due to cuts in maintenance budgets.
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