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Above: The California Conservation Corps (CCCs) put in a hard day’s work at the South Valley High School garden in Ukiah.

North Coast School Gardens: For and By the Communities They Serve

Monday, September 30, 2013

What do dirty hands, happy students, and healthy communities have in common? On California’s North Coast in Lake and Mendocino counties, the answer is: school gardens. Public and private schools throughout each county have been embracing the concept and building gardens for over a decade, often with remarkable results.

The benefits of school gardens have been studied and verified across the board, with positive impacts on students, teachers, and the community at large. For students, time in the gardens gives them a chance to expend energy. Individual expression shines through, and life skills such as teamwork spring naturally from a group effort to nurture their garden. It also directly connects students to food in a tangible way, as they watch radishes and carrots sprout and grow like magic from the tiny seeds they planted.

“Students love it,” says Terry D’Selkie, Mendocino County’s Garden Enhanced Nutrition Education (GENE) Program Coordinator. “For many of them, it’s their favorite part of the day.” A common effect of these programs is increased attendance levels. The cause? Students don’t want to miss out on garden time.

Of course, garden programs also help students make healthy and lasting choices – a proven outcome of garden and nutrition education. A study done by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed students involved in garden-based education more than doubled their daily fruit and vegetable consumption.

Both Lake and Mendocino county’s school gardens have created these and countless other positive conditions for their students, with numerous positive impacts on educators and the community as well. However, they have taken different approaches toward implementing school gardens.

Mendocino County: Network of Gardens

Twelve years ago, the Network for a Healthy California (NHC) paved the way for Mendocino county’s GENE program. Thanks to this funding, Mendocino has a unique claim to fame: every public school in the county has a vegetable garden.

These 32 gardens at the 32 public schools in unified school districts serve more than 8,000 kids every year. However, in a devastating blow to this successful program, all NHC funding was diverted from individual entities – such as school districts –  to each county’s health department in September of 2013.

Lake County: Independent Gardens

In contrast to the struggle Mendocino’s school gardens currently face, the shift in NHC funding will not impact most Lake county gardens because they are financed independently by each school. Although not every school in Lake county has one, the gardens that do exist are not vulnerable to high-level funding shifts.

Pat Iaccino, Superintendent Principal of Upper Lake High School District, says the garden at Upper Lake High School was jumpstarted two years ago when the school was named a California Partnership Academy. Thanks to funding from the Alternative Energy Sustainable Agriculture Academy (AESA), they have added a well, fenced off the garden area, and built a barn to house AESA and FFA students’ animals. “Over the years we hope it grows more and more,” says Iaccino. “Eventually we want to grow enough food to supply our cafeteria.”

Models for the Future

Mendocino county may very well look to the Lake county school gardens for inspiration on how to operate without state funding. Of course, it has at least one local model to study. One of the most notable Mendocino county school gardens is the Noyo Food Forest at Fort Bragg High School. Founded in 2006, the garden has become a nationally recognized example of how gardens and schools can work together. Today, the Noyo Food Forest is so successful that it sells produce back to the school district’s cafeterias. “Noyo Food Forest is the poster child of what a school garden can look like,” says Laurel Chambers, Power Play Coordinator for NHC–North Coast. “It’s very inspiring.”

Program(s) Involved: The Gardens Project