When There Aren’t Enough Resources for Gardens, Schools Hope Kits Will Do the Trick

In an effort to teach kids about gardening and eating well, some U.S. schools are getting garden kits.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 25, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

School gardens have been shown to have a number of benefits. They make kids more likely to eat fruits and veggies. They may help students become better learners overall, improving test scores and behavior in the classroom. And who doesn’t like learning how to make a plant grow?

Yet there has also been one very real problem with school gardens: They’re less common at schools where more students qualify for reduced-price or free lunches. In other words, wealthier schools and students are seeing more of these programs put in place. The number of programs has been growing—particularly in urban areas where kids are less likely to be exposed to gardening otherwise—but three in four elementary schools in the United States still don’t have one.

One reason is that many schools lack resources—time, money, space, or specialized staff—to put a full-scale garden in place. School food service provider Sodexo and Back to the Roots, creator of space-saving ways to grow food, have joined forces to make the process a little easier. Soon, 2 million students in the 2,300 elementary schools Sodexo works with in the U.S. will receive a school garden kit. “It will bring a school gardening experience to schools that might not otherwise have one,” said Scott Loretan, global head of marketing for Sodexo schools.

Students will be able to grow mushrooms and herbs and have a mini aquaponics garden, complete with a class fish, with only slightly more effort than “Just add water.” Loretan mentioned that when he was a student, his class planted beans in Styrofoam cups: “The idea is fantastic, but when you step back and reflect, you realize that cup is going to be in a landfill for a very long time.” Every part of the school garden kit, on the other hand, is either meant to be used long-term or recycled. There is a curriculum to go with each part of the kit so teachers can “talk a little bit about how and why this plant is growing,” Loretan said.

He added that the types of schools Sodexo serves are “a pretty broad spectrum” and that schools in many parts of the country with different socioeconomic levels will be receiving the kits. While it’s better than nothing, the kits are small and are better suited to growing herbs than, say, broccoli or other leafy greens that so few children eat enough of.

Some of the benefits of school gardens come from harvesting the food and bringing it into the cafeteria. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that mandated a change in school lunch standards and increased the amount of fruits and vegetables students needed has been controversial. Though studies have come out saying kids wasted less food and ate more produce, others have found the opposite to be true. In general, kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables that they’re familiar with, and the process of growing and caring for food via a school garden is an easy way to increase produce consumption.

Handing off garden kits to schools isn’t a groundbreaking effort, but it’s a practical way to make them easy to adopt—even for less affluent schools that could benefit from a classroom garden. Even Loretan doesn’t see the kits as the answer to childhood obesity or the most comprehensive school garden program possible.

“We’re hoping this program becomes a seed for future programs,” he said. A small school garden in elementary school is more likely to make students excited about similar programs down the line. “Often schools can figure out how to get it done if they have students and teachers excited about the initiative.”