As the school year officially kicks off for families across the country, it is clear that flexibility, creativity and perseverance are skills we are all going to get a lot of practice with again this fall. It is encouraging to see the interest in outdoor and garden-based learning continuing to rise in popularity and also to see nonprofit and other support organizations continuing to jump in with ideas and resources to help turn this interest into opportunities for students. What a joy to know that the foundation to continue to grow together through gardening is strong!

In the School Garden Support Organization Network’s virtual gathering last week, we had the chance to ask participants about the state of their local schools. About half of the participants were going back to school using all distance teaching, about a quarter were using a hybrid model, and the final quarter was divided between in person or still unknown. A majority of folks also shared that garden educational programs were mostly being continued through digital tools, however there was a lot of interest in finding new ways to connect in person too. From garden to cooking kits and a wide range of ideas for gardening safely during these times, the wheels are turning at max speed to get creative and continue to make an impact through the garden. You can view an archive of the gathering, sign up for future webinar and check out other resources submitted on the SGSO COVID-19 page.

We are also continuing to hear amazing stories from the field as schools, community gardens and nonprofit organizations are finding new ways to connect with their communities and provide needed support. Solving problems through grassroots efforts is always inspiring to me. Who better to figure out the best way to meet local needs than a community-based organization?

Let me share a recent an interview with Hallie Sykes, the Education Manager at Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center in Carnation, Washington as she shared with me some of the details about how their organization was working to tailor programs for their community at this time:

Can you just provide a brief overview of your regular programming?

In a typical year, Oxbow supports hands-on food and nature based learning through farm-based environmental education (EE) for Pre K through 12th grade audiences and beyond. We serve around 7,000 students annually through field trips, in-class lessons, and summer day camps. Through school partnerships we support outdoor education and access in the schoolyards and bring learning to local elementary schools with hands-on lessons covering topics from seeds, pollination, worms, and water, ensuring lessons are supportive of Next Generation Science Standards, in-class instruction, and social and emotional learning.

Tell us about some of the ways you have adapted your programs to meet the needs of your community at this time?

Our programming has pivoted significantly to be responsive during the COVID-19 school closures, especially with regards to food distribution and helping campers and students explore nature and gardening at home. Firstly, our education farm, typically serving kiddos on field trips during “harvesting and snacking tours” and for summer programs and camper-led farm stands, has focused on food distribution and hunger relief. At this time we are providing fresh seasonal veggies weekly to four groups of underserved audiences from youth-focused programming and our 1.5 acre kids farm and education team has contributed to 1200 produce boxes for families throughout the spring and summer of 2020.

In partnership with a teacher and our key partner school Frank Wagner elementary, we started a mini garden program where families could sign up to receive a series of veggie seedlings which were distributed alongside the veggies during weekly school lunch distribution. Essentially we’re bringing garden learning into student homes, with each seedling including bilingual care instructions to ensure success for every garden. Several families have grown enough produce to donate some back to the local food bank in a true showing of reciprocity!

Do you have any feedback from your audience that you can share about the impact of your adapted programming?

We have received a ton of feedback and excitement from families about the veggie distribution and mini garden program at Frank Wagner. We have grown from a school with a garden to a community of gardeners! People are sharing their tips and strategies for success, including recipes and stories. Several families have mentioned a newly invigorated sense of purpose when it comes to growing food and a desire to learn from their wise elders (grandparents or family members) that have gardened for years. It’s an intergenerational knowledge sharing effort! Here are a couple of quotes:

“I am so excited for all the veggies! I haven’t eaten a fresh salad since last week’s bag, which disappeared quick!” – Parent picking up Oxbow produce at Frank Wagner Elementary

“My Daughter and I went to Frank Wagner Elementary to pick up a new learning packet today. We were greeted by an Oxbow Farmer with a smile. He gave us the most Beautiful bag of Greens I have ever seen and Sprouts for our garden!  Thank You so much for the Veggies and the Kindness.”

The enthusiasm is still present, even 19 weeks in!

Do you have any practical tips for other garden-related community organizations based on your experiences?

One of the most beautiful and important outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is building relationships to families in addition to teachers and students. AND knowledge sharing, support and networking between school garden and farm based education entities. One of our proudest efforts is to truly be present and dependable, so we’re there EVERY Wednesday and they know they can count on us. I anticipate this effort will open doors for us to continue to work with the school, the district, the community, and maybe even the cafeteria as we set our sights on bringing farm fresh veggies into the lunchroom -- a notoriously challenging task! Also- never underestimate the true passion, talent, commitment and innovation from a teacher champion. When our inspiring teacher, Elizabeth Lovelace has an idea we follow her lead and support her in every way we can!

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