By Amy Fovargue and Carol Smathers
“We used to be known in the community as the school with all of the bad kids, but now we are known as the school with the gardens. Our reputation has changed for the better,” said Daniel Trujillo, superintendent of the Lighthouse Community School of Cincinnati.
The Lighthouse, a 65-student behavioral school for children in foster care, offers an Urban Agriculture Program for students in seventh grade through high school. In 2010 they started with two 4X4 foot boxes to garden, planted in raised beds in the corner squares of the parking lot where no one was able to park anyway.
Thanks to the encouragement of Liz Solomon of the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), they applied for and received a $2,000 Farm to School grant that was offered by the ODE. “The money kick-started the urban ag project, but then, we had so many additional contributions from the public with items like rain barrels, we had a hard time spending all of the money!” exclaimed Trujillo.
Since receiving the grant, they have additionally planted fruit trees and strawberries. It takes four to five years before fruit trees will yield a large amount of food, but the Lighthouse is looking at the long term planning as well as the short term. Trujillo added that the neighborhood is considered a food desert, where many families struggle to get enough healthy food to eat.
Development corporations in the neighborhood have donated land for the school to garden. Right now, the school has 55 gardens in the area. One garden is designed in the shape of a lighthouse to honor the school’s name. They host community gatherings such as seed swaps, where garden knowledge is exchanged between generations. The students also do guerrilla gardening, reclaiming abandon properties, and help neighbors clean up their backyards. A local business allows the school to start their plants in their greenhouse.
The program relies on hundreds of volunteers to work through the summer, and they are able to pay some students to work in the garden and at the market day which is twice a week from May through August.
Last year, Lighthouse sold 1,500 pounds of produce. People can come pick their own fruits and vegetables. Often, grandparents and parents will bring their children to pick, and the students will show them the gardens, and then if anything is leftover at the end of the day it is sent to a local food pantry. If anyone wants to pick during the off hours, they are simply asked to weigh the produce and leave a note so the school can keep track of the yield. “One problem with that, is that there were too many green tomatoes picked and we did not have as many red tomatoes as we would have liked,” Trujillo explained.
On Fridays, a student’s grandma comes in to teach the kids how to cook with fresh ingredients. The school hosts a Greens Cook-off every fall, which, Trujillo touted, is a nice community event.
One local restaurant purchased basil from the school for their pizzas. However, Trujillo said it can be hard for small businesses to use their products as they cannot guarantee consistency. “Once we get a greenhouse, that could change,” Trujillo said.
More than a garden
Research shows numerous benefits from school gardens. Students engages in hands-on educational opportunities across curriculum areas, gain a valuable appreciation for environmental stewardship and connection with nature, and many make important nutrition and lifestyle improvements. (Source: http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/f2s/School-Garden-Research.pdf) There is evidence that as a result of participating in school garden activities, students have an increased likelihood to try and an increased preference for healthy foods, particularly a variety of vegetables.
One study reported that after gardening, children have an increased interest in eating vegetables and fruit, show an appreciation for working with neighborhood adults, and express an increased interest in improving their neighborhood’s appearance. Importantly, children and adolescents are more likely to try eating vegetables they have grown themselves and ask for them at home. And, the greater the range of products raised at the school, the more opportunities arise for promoting benefits among students, school staff, and community members.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, Lighthouse once purchased fertilized eggs to hatch, which led to the need to build a chicken coop. So, the students built it! Volunteer engineers supervised the construction of the coop and allowed the kids to build it and make their own mistakes. “The building is not plumb, but it will work,” Trujillo laughed.
As the chickens got older, they realized they had half roosters and half hens. The City of Cincinnati has no restrictions on raising chickens, but once the roosters started crowing they had to take care of them. Lighthouse harvested the roosters and held a taste-test to compare the meat to chicken purchased from Kroger. It was difficult for the students to eat them since they had actually held them as chicks and became attached. We asked them, “Where do you think chicken meat comes from?” It was a hard lesson, but only one student refused to eat it, he explained.
The Wise Temple, a neighborhood house of worship, hosts a chicken soup contest annually. The Lighthouse school entered the contest and has won using their home raised chickens. The recipe that they submitted included the whole process such as starting with fertilized eggs through feeding and processing, the superintendent thinks that extra effort really helped them win the contest.
Since beginning to raise their own food and cook, the students have stopped throwing so much food away. This is another good lesson! They have also used aquaponics to produce bluegill fish and tomatoes. The students learn the whole process of constructing the system, and so are learning a lot of STEM skills when building and constructing as well as soil testing and doing research. The students sometimes respond negatively when told they need to do “research”, but they are actually doing a lot of it when looking at soil tests and comparing different plots.
The community can learn from the school garden plots, too. “We are not only educating the youth, but also the whole community about gardening,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo mentioned that some of his students have gone on to cook as a career. The life skills they are gaining from this program are countless. Trujillo says they are learning the following:
- Thinking skills
- Grit to stick with a project
- Showing up on time for work
- Delayed gratification by waiting for plants to produce
- Soft skills when working with adults
One conversation between a student and a teacher went like this:
Teacher: “What have you learned from cleaning out the chicken coop?”
Student: “If you can clean this s@#! out, you can do anything!”
“There is something inspiring about working hard and living through the experience of raising chickens, planting seeds, cultivating the soil, and harvesting. There are no metrics to measure how or why this builds a youth’s self-esteem. It just does,” Trujillo concluded.
Ohio State University Extension hosts a school garden conference each year in Franklin County. School teachers, after-school program staff, parents and others are encouraged to attend, and both new and experienced gardeners will benefit. The 2016 School Garden Conference, themed “Getting Back to Our Roots”, will be held on October 7, at 9am-3 pm at the Nationwide and Ohio 4-H Center on the OSU campus. For more information about the 2016 School Garden Conference, contact organizer Sue Hogan at Hogan,email@example.com.
Daniel Trujillo, Superintendent – Lighthouse Community School 513-561-7888 firstname.lastname@example.org