Growing Food, Growing Health is a dynamic and multifaceted school garden project in Lawrence, Kansas, established in 2010. Three on-site school gardens at West Middle School, Sunset Hill Elementary, and Hillcrest Elementary are cared for by dedicated and inspiring Student Gardeners. Students are employed as a job training and leadership development program through Community Mercantile Cooperative Grocery (The Merc). Even in Kansas’ grueling heat, our Student Gardeners plant, weed, water, and harvest as the needs of the Garden change. As employees of The Merc, these six fourteen-year-olds receive the same training and benefits as any cashier, cook, or stocker at the store. Discounts on their food, customer service training, 30-day evaluations and a pay check every other Friday are just a few of the many opportunities these teens receive. Over the course of the season, Student Gardeners are able to see the full-circle connection between planting, growing, harvesting, washing, selling, and eating. At our weekly Farmers Market and Subscription Vegetable Service, they practice their customer service skills by offering recipe suggestions while making exact change. They also learn how to interface with a supervisor, clock-in and out, request time-off and interact within a work environment. The significance of developing gardening skills, a new relationship with our community, and a rich entry into the working world is certainly not lost on any of these remarkable students.
The Merc Co-op contributes to the Growing Food, Growing Health School Garden Project by paying the salaries of the Student Gardeners. The students are paid The Merc’s entry level wage of $9.25/hour for approximately 100 hours per student over the season. This equals a total of $6,000 annual investment in the project. The Merc Co-op also pays the salary of an employee to hire, train and supervise the Student Gardeners. The Merc also contributes many other in-kind and daily aspects of the garden including publicity for our community-wide volunteer days and big events such as our Running for Food, Running for Health 5k Fundraising Run.
The objective of Growing Food, Growing Health is to bring on-site school gardens to students of West Middle School, Sunset Hill, and Hillcrest Elementary tended by student gardeners, with produce served in the cafeteria, and sold to bring financial sustainability back to the project. These gardens will act as gateways to enjoying growing and eating fresh produce to the student body, parents, faculty, staff, and neighborhood. Employing youth to tend the gardens creates job training opportunities for another generation of local foods leaders. By establishing beautiful growing spaces on the landscapes of schools and integrating to the cafeteria, we hope to help foster a love of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Since 2010, we have harvested 6,000+ pounds of produce from our three gardens – 1,350 pounds of which have gone directly into school cafeterias. Our gardens provide items such as fresh strawberries, heirloom Moon and Stars watermelon, and Sungold cherry tomatoes, all grown by students. Establishing a large-scale school garden and offering the produce in the cafeteria at West was a first for Lawrence Public Schools. Following the success of our project, the momentum has grown to incorporate school gardens and local foods into other schools. We’ve assisted in launching a sister-garden at Southwest Middle School and were rewarded as Southwest’s “Friend of Education” in 2012. The district made their first purchase of local foods in 2011 - 30 pounds of sweet potatoes grown in our school gardens! Since then, the district has integrated locally grown melons, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and butternut squash. In 2012, Lawrence Public Schools declared October 24 “Food Day”, offering local menus across the district. 14 students have come through our program as Student Gardeners. These students continue on with admirable achievements. We’re proud when a student like Karen Schneck’s interest in gardening grows from a hobby to a passion. After two years with our project, she was selected as a 4H Leader, works for Free State High School Garden, and has expressed deep interest in developing a career as a grower. We’re honored to have worked with so many talented, responsible students. They have taken valuable lessons from their experiences and applied them to bright futures.
This inspiring program shines a light on the value that cooperatives bring to communities. We aren’t just channeling money to a good cause; the success of this program is founded on collaborative partnerships and shows how committed we are to our community for the long term. We are so thankful to have this opportunity to make a significant impact on the lives of school kids in our neighborhood. When I was growing up, we never had the chance to connect with our food and the dirt from which is grows. In the future, every school should have a garden where sustainably grown produce is grown by students and integrated into the school’s curriculum and food service operations. – Rita York Hennecke, General Manager