The Fight for School Gardens and Healthier School Food


Thanks to the whole national push for healthier eating and thinner kids, politicians and regular people are rallying support for school gardens.  Here's what's happening in my neck of the woods.

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In Montgomery County, MD:  Food Deemed too Dangerous

Hard as it is to believe, my county school board's initiative encouraging school gardens prohibits the growing of edibles on school grounds – period.  And that's just one of the many rules that must be followed, including having to choose from four approved templates for school gardens – all of them habitat gardens.  (The rules were written with the help of the Audubon Society and the county's Master Gardeners.) 

Those rules don't actually SAY you can't grow edibles but they don't say you can, and when schools ask for permission to grow food they're told no – because food violates the school's Safety Handbook!  Says their safety director, "Fruits
and vegetables are a natural food source for pests, including rodents,
and we are restricted from using any type of pesticide to keep rodents
away until we’ve removed all food sources, so there’s a problem with
putting food sources on school grounds.” He mentioned rabbits,
snakes, groundhogs, mice and rats as rodents that might show up in
gardens and went on to cite
student allergies to the fruits and vegetables as a potential problem.
In meetings, other school board staff have also mentioned insect stings and toxins in the soil as still more things we should be afraid of.

Gordon Clark, head of Montgomery Victory Gardens, a group pressing for more veg-growing in schools and elsewhere, has attended the meetings and tells me that one politician actually asked "What if some well-meaning
neighbor comes and sprays pesticides on the school garden when we're not
there?"  Seriously?  Are they just making up problems?  The Victory Garden folks have also discovered stealth gardens on school grounds – constructed and maintained in secret so as not to be shut down by the school board.  This is nuts.

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In DC: More School Gardens, Healthier Foods in the Cafeteria

The “Healthy Schools” legislation before DC's City
Council creates a school garden program, eliminates sodas and sugary drinks from schools, mandates free breakfast for all
public school students, and contributes an additional 5 cents for
school meals containing local, sustainably raised fruits and
vegetables. (Currently, the federal subsidy for DC's elementary school
kids is $2.68 per meal.)  The bill would also eliminate
trans-fats, introduce nutritional standards for school meals, and set minimum levels of
required exercise for grades K through 8.  Oh, and create a pilot
composting program for school food waste.

Unfortunately, snack and junk foods would still be allowed in schools, only in "managed portion sizes" (whatever!).

According to one Council member, 21 states have
farm-to-school policies for incorporating
locally grown produce in school meals, but not D.C., where the CDC
tells us that 18 percent of high school students are obese and 35
percent are overweight.

Ed Bruske has been beating the drum for these changes and is my source for all school-food-and-garden news.  Ed, can you tell us more about the school garden component of the bill?

What's Going on Near You?
Are your local officeholders helping or hurting the healthier-eating campaign going on across the country?  Your experiences could help overturn the boneheaded anti-edibles policy in my county or stir folks everywhere to ask for more gardens and better food.

 Photo credits: snake,  groundhog, rat, rabbit, school garden, Coke.


  1. Susan,

    Thanks so much for posting this information on school gardens. It is shocking that everyone is so afraid.

    Here in California, we have the exact opposite attitude. The California School Garden Network, a non-profit, is dedicated to the mission of creating and maintaining a garden in EVERY public school in CA. And those gardens are EDIBLE!

    Out here in Los Angeles, I have assisted with several educational garden installations and the incorporation of the “outdoor classroom” into the core curriculum. The school districts all over CA are scrambling to install many more. It really is thanks to the Edible Schoolyard in Berkley, CA that so many administrators are on board.

    Out here, the garden is used to teach everything from math, language arts to social studies. The 3rd graders who study Am. Indians, plant a 3-sister’s garden. The 5th graders, who study Early Am. History, plant a kitchen garden, etc.

    The gardens are also incorporated into the cafeteria lunches AND we implement a full composting program with the kid’s sorting their lunch waste and composting what they can. They take it all full circle.

    And on a side-note, I am the Associate Producer of Joe Lamp’l’s new gardening show “Growing A Greener World” that will air nationally in the spring on PBS. We have an episode on The Edible Schoolyard and how people can get help with doing it in their own neighborhoods.

    I sure hope that administrators across the country will open their eyes to this. The fear is unfounded.

  2. Bone-headed is right. What’s going to inhabit those “habitat gardens”? They probably want birds & butterflies & ladybugs. Noble enough. But birds poop & carry disease as well as any animal. Butterflies mean caterpillars eating the foliage – and some “well-meaning neighbor” might spray for them ! Ladybugs only hang around for food; once it’s gone, so are they. Besides, ladybugs can crawl in ears (ask my son) requiring a visit to the nurse’s office at least – & Lord knows that would cause a snit by these types.

    My kids’ school has a garden. The only rules we must follow are those we decide on. That’s the upside of private school. The downside is we must raise the funds for everything we do – no small task when most folks are strapped for tuition $$ (contrary to popular belief, private school does NOT equal rich parents).

    The kids are allowed to eat the veggies fresh from the ground – indeed, some kids have discovered they LIKE radishes & lettuce now that we’re growing our own. They watch the plants with amazing care, concerned about the holes in the broccoli leaves, or the toppled cauliflower. As soon as I walk into the school, kids start asking if I’m going to the garden today, are the carrots ready, can they help me water or look for bugs …

    Sometimes I think the adults need to get over themselves & let the kids show us the way.

  3. I beg to differ, Susan, Theresa and Laura. I’ve done landscape rehab with my college courses at a number of older public schools and soil testing has shown that many schoolyard soils are hot, hot, hot with lead and other heavy metals. Two of the sources of lead residues from (1) leaded paint and (2) leaded gasoline. Unlike organic pollutants, lead doesn’t break down. It stays in the soil, and plants take up and accumulate lead and other heavy metals. This is not a scare tactic – it has been demonstrated repeatedly in the scientific literature. If schools are not having their soil tested before they’re planting edibles, they could open themselves up for legal action in our lawsuit-happy culture. By all means plant vegetables at schools in containers with new potting media. But please don’t advocate for planting edibles in untested urban soils.

  4. Linda, I’m glad you made that point and I should have made it in the post. I forgot that not everyone knows to test the soil and that in most cities, raised planters will be required (though the soil around the White House passed its test with plenty of margin). I was referring to my county, where the soils probably test just fine for edibles.

  5. Linda,

    Well, of course the soils should be tested and they are out here! We also grow everything in raised beds and containers and the soils are tested on a yearly basis.

    I just assumed most people know to do that. But you bring up an excellent point in that they do not always know and we should not assume anything!

    Thanks for bringing up the topic.

  6. Susan and Theresa, I’m glad that soil testing is second nature for you! I grew up in Tacoma, where the local smelter spewed arsenic into the air for decades before it was shut down. The soils downwind are still highly contaminated. And I spent 8 years teaching at Buffalo State College, where I met people who suffered the horrendous effects of burying toxic waste at Love Canal. So I am super-sensitive about soil safety. (How’s that for aliteration?)

  7. School gardens in the Baltimore area suffered from similar silliness until recently. I am a master gardener and have heard from other MGs that, if you work on a project at a school, you cannot plant anything that might attract bees for fear of a bee sting and a lawsuit!

    However, within the last year, particularly in the city, things have really started to change. I think this is in large part due to the hard work of the food service director for the public schools in the city. His goal is to make sure that kids get healthy school lunches, and gardens at local schools are a part of the solution. Attached are a couple of links to some of the work he is doing, like installing greenhouse gardens at a local high school.,0,601643.story

    Baltimore gets a lot of bad press, but here is something that the city is doing right!

  8. Linda,
    You have good reason to be sensitive. You’ve seen the aftermath. All good points!

    As for the bee sting and lawsuit worries brought up by the other comments: We live in a worrisome time because we have gotten so far away from nature that people are afraid of it. AND with everyone so lawsuit crazy, the administrators do have reason to worry. It is too bad on many levels.

  9. I feel so lucky that our school was built on pasture land, similar to where many of the students’ houses are built. The recognition of the importance of school gardens has also led to the changing of laws that forbid the eating of produce from a school garden. Baby steps to good sense.

  10. Susan, like everything else in the D.C. “Healthy Schools” initiative, much depends on money. The bill does call on the shcool system to create a school garden program that would give technical assistance to schools wishing to have gardens as well as grants–when money is available–for the purpose of building gardens. It also calls on the school system to work with other relevant city agencies to create a plan for expanding school gardens, including removal of asphalt where necessary, and to issue a report on the state of school gardens along with plans for expanding them. It requires to schools to create curricala for using school gardens as educational tools and to award grants, when funds are available, to support development of shcool gardens.

    Produce from school gardens could be used in school meals as long as the soil tests safe, which I infer to mean safe levels of lead and arsenic. I also encourages school gardens to include a compost pile “when feasible.”

    Short of a sweeping mandate to build a garden at every school, this is pretty much what we who had a hand in helping draft the legislation had proposed and had been hoping for.

  11. The horticulture/agriculture classes in my HS made money by starting seeds and selling the baby plants to the local nursery. We had a greenhouse among other farm equipment paid for with those plants. There were indoor days when we learned about plant pests/diseases and how to control them and outside days when we got dirty. I don’t recall ever eating anything we grew but it was definitely a good learning experience.

  12. It finally comes to prove that academia( can’t grow food at school) in their ivory towers and the I know best wannbe dictators that infest our school boards are simply IDIOTS plain and simple Everyone of theses holier than thou morons needs to be voted out.

    You are a JERK if you serve on a school board and resist growing veggies in the school yard.

    The TROLL

  13. This is definitely over the top. If there is absolutely no way to fight it, however, would they object to “houseplants” grown right in the classroom that just happen to be patio-sized tomato, lettuce, and cukes?

  14. It seems to me that we should be removing soil from around schools that contain dangerous levels of arsenic and leads. In my opinion even small levels should be composted in toxic sites far away from schools or homes and some process for restoring the soils health be implemented. Soils should be tested… absolutely. I find it a bit odd however … the concern over danger when Coke has so many harmful ingredients and all the industry food served in schools is more than questionable too. One other commenter mentioned how far removed we are from nature … so that we fear it… I believe this too. We must work to reclaim our connection and the right of children to have healthy playing grounds and productive gardens that grow food and teach children about becoming more sustainable. They will truly learn more about botany at the same time … what better classroom is there?

  15. I agree with Carol. If the big concern here is poison in the soil, shouldn’t that be tested no matter what is grown there? News flash: kids eat dirt… sometimes on purpose. If they’re playing in soil that is lead- and arsenic-heavy, it should be removed.

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