On a sunny afternoon in the Kansas Avenue Learning Garden at The Environmental Center in downtown Bend, an excited group of kindergarteners flits among the raised garden beds filled with veggies and flowers, each tasked with finding one thing that has changed since the last time they visited the garden.
Lindsey Nightingale teaches kindergarten at Amity Creek Elementary School. On this day, her students get to be "food heroes"—a title kids can earn by being brave enough to try veggies grown in the garden. Nearly every one of her students earned the moniker.
"The garden provides us with a variety of benefits, including everything from learning how to be out in the community, learning about caring for the 4 P's of the garden (pollinators, plants, people and place)," said Nightingale. "An appreciation for being in the garden and being a "food hero" by trying new foods—and it's just a whole lot of fun to get out of the building and extend our learning to the outdoors."
In 2010, the team at The Environmental Center transformed a vacant lot next to its building into a learning garden, and in 2016, expanded the vision to help create outdoor classrooms at local schools with their "Garden For Every School" initiative. To meet this goal, the nonprofit has awarded $500 to $1,500 grants to schools to help them start or maintain their own gardens, as well as cultivating a local Garden Educator Network that offers gardening workshops. That network is now comprised of 117 educators in Central Oregon.
“…You’re just learning right alongside your kids, and that’s kind of the main reason we call it a learning garden— because we’re all in this together and we’re figuring it out as we go.”—Denise Rowcrofttweet this
This spring, The Environmental Center approved $10,000 in grant funding for nine school garden projects in Bend, Sisters, Sunriver and Prineville. Denise Rowcroft, program manager at The Environmental Center, said it doesn't take a green thumb to make a learning garden a reality.
"I'm just learning right alongside the kids," said Rowcroft. "So, I try to relay that to teachers, also, because some of them were also like, 'oh, I want to start a school garden but just have a brown thumb or whatever'—and it's like, well, you're just learning right alongside your kids, and that's kind of the main reason we call it a learning garden— because we're all in this together and we're figuring it out as we go."
Crooked River Elementary School received a grant from The Environmental Center this spring, helping educators revive their school garden. After the school relocated in 2016, their greenhouse garden was displaced. The greenhouse sat empty for two years, said Crooked River Elementary teacher Karen Bryant, until they were able to secure funding to relocate it and hook up plumbing and electricity.
"It took us a long time to get it going again here at school," said Bryant, who's helping to revive the greenhouse garden. "So I'm hoping next year it will be even better."
The Environmental Center grant helped the school buy tools for the children to work in the garden. Getting the garden going again was a community effort—the vice principal and a handful of teachers helped reconstruct the greenhouse at the new location, another group of educators built the tables and raised beds and their National Future Farmers of America youth organization rep donated seeds.
"On Monday, we had our 'Seed to Plate' celebration and we ate our salad—yeah, I even got some of them to taste a raspberry vinaigrette instead of the boring old ranch dressing," said Bryant.
Rowcroft said when kids work in the learning garden and return time and again to see what they've grown, the whole experience offers an appreciation for where food comes from.
"I think that really does translate to their affinity for trying new foods," said Rowcroft.
The Environmental Center is currently raising money for its next crop of grants, which they will fund through donations from the community and foundation grants. Grant applications are due by Nov. 19, and organizers will issue awards in mid-January 2020.
Garden For Every School Initiative
Grant apps due: Nov. 19
Grants awarded: Mid-Jan. 2020