Ohio State Students Create School Garden Outreach Program
Across degree program at Ohio State, students want to help people improve their health and improve their lives. Ohio State medical students Ryan Poland, Brandon Rodgers, and Nicole Hurwitz will provide health care to treat patients’ illnesses. However, they are even more interested in preventing illnesses from arising before individuals need to visit a doctor. To this end, these dedicated medical students organized the Ohio State School Garden Outreach and Engagement group to help implement and maintain school gardens within the Columbus City Schools (CCS) district.
“In our day, we see people being treated in the hospital instead of …starting with a good foundation. What you eat and what you do at home creates that foundation, so you don’t end up in the hospital,” said Rodgers.
This preemptive strike on children’s health is the main driver for Ohio State students wanting to volunteer to help with CCS school gardens.
“Working with kids and being able to teach them about nutrition, what they can do to help themselves, and just to give them a couple skills that they can take on through life. Just being there for them and seeing how much fun they have, that’s why I do it,” said Rodgers.
It all started in May 2019 when the students reached out to Columbus City Schools. The school district had just created a new Farm to School Coordinator position as a special assignment for CCS teacher Christine Weatherholtz. Her goal is for all 112 CCS school sites to have a school garden and to embed garden activities into their classroom curriculum. Weatherholtz has implemented over 40 gardens in one short year but couldn’t have done it without the help of her community partners, including this student group.
Rodgers grew up farming and feels a calling to teach others how to grow their own food.
“Ryan and Brandon kind of zoomed in and saved the day. I was really trying to figure out how I was going to efficiently reach out to 40 some schools and all of a sudden, they were there and honestly it has been such a great support. I don’t even know how to say thank you. I don’t,” said Weatherholtz.
When Poland and Rodgers heard that Weatherholtz could use some help, they rallied the Ohio State community together to help make school gardens possible for all CCS elementary schools.
As a veteran himself, Poland sent out information about the opportunity to help with school gardens through the Ohio State Military and Veterans Services program. He also contacted various colleges around Ohio State’s campus to recruit volunteers. Students in almost every college across campus including the College of Dentistry, the College of Pharmacy, College of Medicine, College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Public Health, College of Arts and Sciences, and the Fisher College of Business expressed interest in helping.
“It’s students all across the Ohio State university who either had an interest in engaging with kids for some reason or gardening for some reason….We try to do anything that Chris needs help with.” said Poland.
The student group’s work also gained interest from Columbus State Community College. For Columbus State’s annual Day of Service, students from Columbus State spent the day cleaning the grounds around an elementary school.
“They weeded the front flower beds, painted a mural of super heroes in the student restrooms, painted and repaired the garden beds, put new soil in the beds, read books to the children, then took the students outside to plant in the 12 garden beds that had been repaired and finally, painted the fence around the garden,” said Weatherholtz. “They’re all the way in. Flexibility, consistency, and always being there for us as a partner in this initiative has made it work. They care about CCS children and their success in all arenas whether its health, education, clothing or food. We have so many people rising up to help us and reaching out to our population in so many ways it has just been phenomenal.”
The student group has helped the gardens come to life behind the scenes and have also had the opportunity to engage with students. The first time Poland and Rodgers brought plants to a school, the students were reluctant, but the two med students urged one student to join them in the garden.
“The other kids saw him and by the end of the half hour we had all 15 kids out there taking plants from a pot and putting them into the garden. By the end of the day it was just a really fun time. We went in there not knowing really what to do and no one really wanted to hang out with us and by the end of the day everyone was in there helping with the garden and enjoying their time,” said Rodgers.
The Ohio State students’ work has benefited CCS students by giving them the opportunity to learn how to grow their own food and learn about nutrition.
“We have little people saying ‘hey, you can use kale to make kale chips and they actually taste better than potato chips’ and this little girl is telling a whole population of adults this in one of our elementary schools. This is what it’s about,” said Weatherholtz. “Or the little boy begging [his parents] for spinach in the middle of Walmart. I’ve had kids beg me to put things in the cart but never spinach. This is a real impact that these young people are having on the children they’re reaching out to.”
Along with teaching about food and nutrition, the Ohio State students enjoy the opportunity to spend time with the kids around the garden.
“For me personally, the benefit that I get is maintaining that community connection …I have a large interest in health outside medicine and big interest in the larger contributing factors to health with your daily lifestyle and I think Farm to School is this great program for conditioning that in the community,” said Poland.
“All of the students have just been so genuinely hard working and giving and it’s just incredible and we’ve made some great gains because of it, said Weatherholtz. “We’re touching lives and that’s why I got into the biz and that’s why they’re getting into their biz. It’s about touching lives and changing lives for the better. You can just see it happening and it still gives me goosebumps even though I’ve been doing it for 30 some years, it still makes me say ‘wow, this was a good choice.’”
If you are interested in helping out with school gardens, please sign up here. Opportunities are available year-round. For more information, contact email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.