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This summer has been hot and dry. And amidst the ongoing drought, local farmers have suffered the most – crops have dried up, and water storage levels are lowering. But thanks to the Springfield Urban Agriculture Coalition, or SUAC, urban agriculture is thriving – especially in local school gardens. KSMU’s Samuel Crowe reports on the burgeoning movement to educate our future farmers through SUAC’s DIRT Project.
The DIRT project maintains nine school gardens in Springfield, including one at Eugene Field Elementary. Here, local volunteers teach kids the basics of agriculture and the importance of a healthy diet. These kids are part of a YMCA summer program called “Local Sprouts,” which provides kids with locally grown produce. For the past three summers, SUAC has teamed up with Local Sprouts to help maintain three of the school gardens.
SUAC co-founder Melissa Millsap says it’s important to introduce our kids to healthy lifestyle habits as early as possible – especially when you consider that according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of adolescents in the United States are obese.
“When we originally started the DIRT project, it was really to kind of mend that gap between kids knowing where their food comes from and how it’s grown and how to eat it and just what it tastes like,” Millsap said.
School gardens have been around for years, but Millsap and fellow SUAC co-founder Lucy Howell saw them as quite a large task for a single teacher to maintain. So their idea behind the DIRT project was to create a core garden team, responsible for constructing and sustaining these gardens, while developing a curriculum the schools can use to teach the kids. The curriculum is 50 percent science based and 50 percent agriculture based, and it all ties back into the key terms these kids are learning.
Since its inception three years ago, The DIRT project has had quite an impact on the kids. Just ask Katelynn Deer, a student at Jeffries Elementary. This is her second year with the DIRT project.
“Last year, I experienced all this stuff, and I went up to my parents and said, ‘Could we have our own garden?’ So this year, we have our own garden. We have basil, zucchini, and four tomato plants,” Deer said.
And that’s exactly what the DIRT project is designed to do – get these kids excited about agriculture, and they might just want to tend to their own gardens at home. Howell, the lead educator of the DIRT Project, says a lot of the kids end up teaching their parents what they learned in the garden that day.
“As simple as from how to plant peas to how to make a salad dressing with three ingredients. There’s some definite education sharing going on, which is cool, going from a child to a parent. It’s cool to see them learn from one another, instead of the parent being the one to teach,” Howell said.
Kyra Linde is another student in the DIRT Project. She says her favorite part is eating the vegetables she harvests. But she enjoys the more routine aspects of gardening too.
“When you start to pull the weeds and put more stuff in it, it helps this garden to grow more stuff – if you keep working on it, it will keep growing more stuff. And I like working on the garden this year,” Linde said.
That’s exactly what Millsap and Howell want to see - these kids understanding the importance and benefits of hard work through their time spent at the garden. Howell says the fruits of their labor have been evident as the gardens continue to survive amidst this brutal drought. If only the parents could get their kids to work this hard at home.
“This is a working garden, so sometimes you have to pull some weeds, and there’s not always a machine that does it for you, or there’s not a sprinkler that will always water for you. Part of bringing the community together is bringing the kids together and teaching them. We value the work we do I guess, and teaching them that it is work,” Howell said.
Millsap says some parents and educators have voiced concerns about what will happen to the gardens in the period between the summer DIRT programs and the beginning of the school semester. Millsap says SUAC will just let the gardens go – no watering, no weeding, nothing until school starts.
“We’ve decided as a group that this is an excellent opportunity to teach the kids about the drought and about how it affects our lives and how it affects our food. So we’re going to roll with it, and go ahead and stop watering the gardens and see what happens. When the kids get back, we’ll be able to grab onto every aspect of education that it provides,” Millsap said.
One of the biggest lessons Howell and Millsap have learned since starting the DIRT project three years ago is that if the kids have a hand in growing the crops – if they plant the seeds, if they water the plants, if they harvest the vegetables - they will eat them. And Howell says that’s good news for parents looking for ways to convince their kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.
“Things that they think they won’t like – tomatoes, or things that they’ve never had, or maybe they’ve only had spinach that’s a frozen block of something not cooked the right way and mushy – if you show them a different way to eat it, which in our case to date has mostly been raw because we’re outside in a garden, then they say ‘Oh, I didn’t realize I liked yellow pear tomatoes,’ or ‘I had no clue that I like mustard greens.’ They’ve expanded their tastes, too,” Howell said.
To help sustain the DIRT Project through the upcoming school year, SUAC is hosting a fundraiser on Friday August 24thcalled “Cocktails and Wellies on the Lawn” – and all the proceeds will go directly toward the DIRT project. For more information about the fundraiser and the DIRT Project, visit our website, ksmu.org. For KSMU News, I’m Samuel Crowe.