Under cloudy skies on a recent Friday morning, 13-year-old B’Azsae Gale concentrated on burying a feisty irrigation hose in the soil of a white modular planter that is part of a new “learning garden” on Denver’s West Campus.

Students at Denver Public Schools' West Campus pour dirt in the new learning garden.
Students at Denver Public Schools’ West Campus pour dirt in the new learning garden.

As Gale pushed the hose down, calling for more soil from wheelbarrow-toting classmates, he mused about the vegetables he hopes to plant.

“Let’s plant some carrots,” he told Tighe Hutchins, community outreach manager for The Kitchen Community, the Boulder non-profit that created the sleek, modern-looking learning gardens.

“Carrots! Yum. What about broccoli?” asked Hutchins.

“Yeah, broccoli, and some bell peppers,” said Gale, who attends West Generation Academy.

The West Campus learning garden will give 1,200 students at four schools access to fresh produce and hands-on lessons in science, math and health. But it’s just one small part of The Kitchen Community’s ambitious plan to create 180 learning gardens in Colorado, Chicago, Los Angeles and other communities in 2013.

This pledge, which has been recognized by the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, will more than quadruple the 55 learning gardens installed by The Kitchen Community in 2011 and 2012. The Kitchen Community’s goal is to connect kids to real food and combat childhood obesity, which now affects 14.2 percent of Colorado children and 17 percent of American children.

🔗Encouraging healthy living

In addition to facilitating academic lessons, the learning gardens, a series of curved white planting beds made of durable food-grade plastic and interspersed with boulders and benches, are designed to encourage spontaneous play and casual observation of the growing process.

“We want them to be right beside the playground, never hidden behind a fence,” said Dominic Thompson, who leads Colorado region business development at The Kitchen Community.

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At Lafayette’s Ryan Elementary, which got a 4-bed learning garden a year ago, Principal Tobey Basoff likens the garden to an experiential learning field trip in which students never have to leave school grounds.

“Some kids don’t have access to any gardening whatsoever…They get very, very, very excited,” said Basoff. “In our garden, they’re very much encouraged to touch and play and smell.”

Getting kids to eat (and enjoy) veggies is also part of the plan, and research shows school gardens help get the job done. For example, a 2007 study in what is now called the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that sixth-graders who participated in garden-based nutrition programs increased their servings of fruits and vegetables more than students who didn’t participate.

A 2002 study published in the same journal found that a garden-based nutrition program increased fourth-graders’ preferences for certain vegetables that had been planted in their school garden, plus zucchini, which wasn’t present in their garden.

🔗Farm to table then garden to school

The Kitchen Community was founded in 2011 as the philanthropic arm of The Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant that opened in Boulder in 2004 and added a Denver location in 2012. The  restaurant was founded by former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Kimbal Musk, his wife Jen Lewin, who designed the learning garden planters, and Chef Hugo Matheson.

The non-profit, with its emphasis on simple, scalable design and rapid growth, has the air of the high-tech start-up. But instead of making millions, its mission has more to do with raising millions then giving it away in the form of garden infrastructure and implementation.

With the help of corporate sponsorships, grants and other funding secured by The Kitchen Community or its partners, most of the 180 new learning gardens will be installed for free at schools with 60 percent or more low-income students. The city of Chicago has earmarked $1 million of unspent NATO Summit money for learning gardens at 60 district schools in 2013. On average, a learning garden costs about $15,000.

The organization’s extensive application process, which requires the formation of a garden team and letters of support from the school’s principal and the district’s grounds supervisor, is meant to guarantee each school’s commitment to the project.

Schools that have fewer than 60 percent low-income students are also eligible for the gardens, but typically have to raise some of the money themselves. The Kitchen Community gives them discounts equal to the percentage of low-income students attending the school, up to 50 percent.

🔗Making sure gardens grow

The Kitchen Community’s main focus is providing schools with the hardware for their gardens, including the planters, benches, art poles, boulders and shade structures. Typically, tying the garden to curriculum and making sure it’s well-used is the school’s responsibility, often in partnership with a local gardening organization.

Students at Denver's West Campus work to construct the new learning garden.
Students at Denver’s West Campus work to construct the new learning garden.

At Ryan Elementary, which raised $11,000 for its learning garden, the Longmont-based Growe Foundation has been that partner. Executive director Bryce Brown said the organization helps train teachers on how to integrate school gardens into the curriculum and engage parents and students in school garden activities.

Basoff said in addition to planting and harvesting vegetables,  students have used the garden as a destination for sketching, a starting point for graphing exercises and to learn about marketing. Some students are currently planning to create books about the garden using an iPad application. Plus, there’s a service learning component because extra produce is donated to the local food bank at Sister Carmen Community Center.

On Denver’s West Campus, the recent garden prep session was a fitting extension of eighth-grader B’Azsae Gale’s “Tinkering Technology” class, which examines how humans interact with tools and technology.

“Right now we’re learning how to use tools and stuff, so this really helps because we’re using drills and shovels and maybe hammers,” said Gale.

Brown said school gardens, whether The Kitchen Community’s learning gardens or some other kind, are a great educational tool, but added, “There really does need to be the support for parents and teachers to keep them going long term.”

🔗Rebuilding in Alamosa

After three Alamosa elementary schools were consolidated into two new buildings on one campus in 2011, local garden advocates had to start a school garden from scratch. There was plenty of space- 14,000 square feet- but the soil was salty, the land was drab and there were drainage problems.

The learning garden at Alamosa Elementary School.
The learning garden at Alamosa Elementary School.

As part of the garden redevelopment effort, Alamosa Elementary got a 4-bed learning garden from The Kitchen Community last fall.

The 1,000-student school, where 84 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, may be exactly the kind of place where The Kitchen Community hopes to have an impact.

Victoria Bruner, director of Alamosa Community Gardens, which helps run the school garden program, said although agricultural crops, including potatoes, barley, quinoa, lettuce, spinach and carrots, are a major industry in the San Luis Valley, the eating habits of residents often don’t reflect it.

“There’s definitely obesity issues here as well,” she said.

One day, Bruner hopes the school garden, which includes the learning garden beds plus some raised wood and ground-level beds, will  provide at least some of the lettuce for the cafeteria salad bars.

So far, the learning gardens have yielded the most robust crops because of their healthier soil. In addition, they have helped create an attractive visual focus in the developing school garden.

“If you take the beds out it would be this boring piece of flat land,” she said. “The teachers aren’t going to use it if it’s not inviting.”