Report from the Trenches: The Fight for School Gardens and Fresh Food for Kids


Guest Rant by Gordon Clark, Project Director, Montgomery Victory Gardens   Leila2

When will access to affordable, fresh, healthy food, including the ability to grow it or know the people who grow it, be recognized as a basic human right?  Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? 

And in the midst of the snowballing good food movement, surely everyone would have to be pro-fresh food in a nice liberal area like my home of Montgomery County, Maryland, right?

Think again.

Montgomery Victory Gardens was founded a little over a year ago with a mission to build a more sustainable, self-reliant, local food system here in Montgomery County – local food being the freshest and healthiest you can get.  And we figured that, given the nation's skyrocketing incidence of diet-related childhood obesity and diabetes (sometimes referred to as "diabesity") and the rapidly growing school vegetable garden movement intended to confront this crisis, our own public school system would be a logical place to start.

But what we discovered, incredibly enough, was a de facto ban on school vegetable gardens, led by a Facilities Director (since departed) who referred to himself in public as "the black hole" into which applications for school veggie gardens would disappear.  We started putting pressure on our County Council, which held a hearing, and then on the Board of Education.  This proved enough of an irritant that the school system's superintendent stepped up to explain why veggie gardens – almost universally seen as great boons to a school learning environment, not to mention to children's health and well-being – were not allowed on school property.  Incredibly enough, he portrayed them as hazards.  (Food allergies and pest infestations were two prominent concerns, all empirical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.)

It seems that a lot of groups in our county found this as outrageous as we did, because when we teamed up with the county's Master Gardeners to draft an open letter calling for an end to the ban, we got more than 30 community organizations, including our county's health commission, to sign on.

I am delighted to report that while the school system may not yet have religion on the issue of edible school gardens, they have at least seen the light, (or perhaps felt the heat?), because we are now working with them to create policy and guidelines for vegetable gardens. 

Throughout this campaign we've been emotionally buoyed by First Lady Michelle Obama's very public advocacy for school gardens, which I've been only too happy to use as a rhetorical truncheon against nonbelievers.  (As in "My goodness, even the First Lady wants us to do this!" Pretty much everyone understands, at least on a subconscious level, that anything the First Lady chooses to involve herself in is by definition wholesome, good, and beyond questioning.)

So it was wonderful to learn just before Thanksgiving that the First Lady was unveiling a new program to bring thousands of salad bars into schools.  What could be better than that?  Reading about it in Ed Bruske's "Slow Cook" blog, though, I was surprised to learn that three school systems had actively rejected this sensible fresh food program, and that one of them was – I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck before I finished the sentence – Montgomery County, MD!  Apparently those "child safety" concerns were creeping up again – fears that sneeze guards won't work for the smaller elementary school children, or that they'll use their hands instead of tongs.  And then there's some nonsense about portion control, as if the ability to accurately weigh spinach leaves should prevent one from making sure the kids get some spinach leaves in the first place. (Apparently the USDA just made clear that self-serve salad bars are indeed permissible for elementary schools – we'll see if this moves the naysayers in our system.)

So just as the lack of school gardens denies kids a chance to learn what food is or where it comes from, the unwillingness of a school system to consistently serve fresh, local food robs the kids of any real connection to the farms and farmers around them – a fundamental disruption in the natural food system that ultimately harms our health, our economy, and our planet.  There are obviously many impediments to schools serving fresh food on a regular basis, but since school systems are often the largest institutional purchaser of food in a given county, they have more than a little power to change that.

Here in Montgomery County, for instance, we have the 16th largest school district in the country, serving meals to 140,000 kids every day, yet we simultaneously have a very large (93,000 acre) Agricultural Reserve that, while it has plenty of horse farms and tree nurseries, produces only the tiniest amount of food for consumption by the resident population, school children or anyone else.  Does that make any earthly sense at all? 

Farm-to-school programs are a great idea, and the $50 million in funding for them in the recently passed Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is a start, but it's still a relative drop in the bucket. Changing the practices of our public schools when it comes to food is going to take a lot of hard work, often one school at a time.  

But there is a reasonable and sane starting point.  Let's agree that fresh, healthy food – the ability to eat it, to participate in growing it, to know those who grow it for you –  is a basic human right, in schools and everywhere else.  If we can agree on that, then maybe we have a chance of reordering the rest of our dysfunctional fast food society to make it happen.

Here's a short but interesting bio of Gordon, and how he happens to be guest-ranting here.  Photo of Leila Bruske by her dad, Ed.


  1. Gordon calling everything “a basic human right” automatically sets a certain segment of the population into a defensive often unmovable mindset. Might I suggest “The Freedom to access Fresh Healthy Food.” You might get more traction with that.

    Probably the biggest hurdles to getting fresh local food in schools is the industrial nature of the food growing, processing, purchasing and preparation of food in school cafeterias. It’s cheaper and easier to deal with on the industrial scale as in frozen most likely.

    The freedom to access fresh healthy food has to become a priority worth the extra effort instead of the slop in a bucket these large institutions are used to.

  2. It is easier for people to say “no” than to make something happen for the greater good. I am for growing gardens at school. Most schools I know of have plenty of cleared grounds and what better place is there to start a garden. It should be like sports are to most schools. After all, growing of healthy foods should be everyones concern. Just think of what we could be teaching our children. I hope you all keep up the fight for growing gardens at schools. We really need to know more about where our food comes from and what to eat that will make us healthier.

  3. A great rant and I hope people outside of Montgomery County take notice as well. The impact school gardens can make on not only the students but their entire families is incredible. I have seen it first hand – my company, Teich Garden Systems, designs and installs raised bed garden systems around the country primarily for schools and other community organizations. It is so disheartening to think that people are putting up these sorts of roadblocks.

    Jared Finkelstein
    Teich Garden Systems

  4. It’s a sad thing that so many kids’ only connection to farms & food is an annual pumpkin patch field trip or the petting zoo at a fair. I’m lucky enough that my kids’ school has a garden. It’s tiny, couldn’t feed one class in entirety … but I’ve been told by countless parents that their children have had a great change of heart regarding veggies. They ask for peas, radishes, even broccoli. No longer will they accept a bland watermelon (we raised Moon-&-Stars this summer) or regard popcorn as something that only comes in a bag or box. And most have come to the conclusion that bugs should be considered our friends until proven otherwise.

    Absolutely gardens should be considered a necessity for all schools, but not just for the food link. Maybe if districts saw them as live learning labs, the attitude would change.

  5. Our garden club has supported the local school district’s school garden program for more than a decade. It’s been difficult. The involvement of at least a couple of teachers and parent volunteers who garden is necessary for any kind of success. Schools and teachers are under such intense pressure these days to make their NCLB test numbers good that they eliminate everything else. Only the new enthusiastic young teachers are open to the program and they seem to vanish by the next year.

  6. We live in the country and our little school does have a garden where the children work as part of the curriculum, as well as with parents after school if they wish. The garden does depend on a committment from the teachers, and from community volunteers. The state’s view is that a garden is fine, but it is illegal to eat the produce in the school. That certainly makes sense! Grrrrrr.

  7. Thanks for the comments all, and it’s great to hear from folks doing this already. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome in this work, from the industrial nature of the school food system (particularly here in Montgomery County, which tends to mimic national patterns of intense centralization), and certainly the many demands on teachers. But the benefits of of school gardens and fresh food in schools are just too huge not to fight for. I say we change the NCLB standards to require food gardening and cooking classes!

  8. This is such a wonderful idea. “Gardening is good for the soul” I don’t know who said it, we need to get our children outside and their hands in the dirt it’s good for the mind as well as the body. I was angered when I found out that if food hadn’t been federally inspected it could not be served in the public schoolsystem. Thats the reason the e-coli infected hambuger was so good for the kids.huh??

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