Erica Lewis helps a young student harvest a winter squash in pre-pandemic days.
“I can recall being in preschool and having an experience that had a big impression on me—it made me want to become a chef,” says Erica Lewis, Food Service Manager at the Caring Center in Philadelphia, PA. “When I was 4 years old we got to go into the kitchen at our preschool and work with the chef. Now I want the kids I work with to have the opportunity to go out, dig something up in the garden, then come into the kitchen to prepare it and eat it.”
At the Caring Center, an early childhood education childcare center, after-school, and summer program in the Mantua neighborhood of Philadelphia, Erica gets to do all this and more. Not only does she conduct cooking classes using produce straight from the garden, but she also regularly uses the garden’s harvest in snacks. “I’m always hoping our kids will develop a love for healthy food and a love for gardening.”
The Caring Center’s garden, which recently expanded this past April with the help of KidsGardening and Dreamworks Animation Studios, isn’t just used for cooking and tasting activities. All 28 teachers at the Caring Center use the garden as an educational tool throughout the school year. “Gardens can make so many contributions to a learning environment” observes Education Manager Linda Li. “A garden can help improve cognitive development, be used for STEM-based activities, can contribute to social emotional learning, helping kids develop patience and cooperation.” Linda also notes that “living in a city and working in a city, we realized that kids don’t have many opportunities to get involved in a garden. So through a garden we can give kids a new sensory experience and a life long memory.”
“At the Caring Center, over the last couple years we’ve really focused on making sure we’re helping kids develop lifelong habits and our garden-based learning initiatives are central to that” shares Justin Bell, the Center’s Executive Director. “We know there’s an inherent curiosity and we know that hands-on, interactive learning is the most effective way to engage that curiosity.”
Planting seedlings in a new raised bed at The Caring Center.
Running a successful garden program for over a decade can be challenging though. “You need to find someone who will take the leadership initiative. You need someone to make sure the garden gets watered and weeded,” says Justin. “We’re lucky to have Erica, someone who is so passionate about it, who’s in the kitchen and can see the connection between the garden and the foods we’re eating.”
Beyond having a defined garden point-person and sweeping staff buy-in, the Caring Center credits some of their success to scaled growth. “Don’t despise small beginnings,” advises Erica. “We went from having one large growing box, to two more smaller ones, and now we have all these raised beds!” She also highly recommends listening to the kids you’re working with. “Let the children lead you. They will tell you what they want to do.”
The approximately 150 students who attend programming at the Caring Center serve as inspiration in more than one way. “Two summers ago we raised a whole bunch of kale, then the staff dressed as superheroes and made Super Kale Smoothie for students to try—the kids were so psyched about it,” says Justin. “And this year we’ve decided to have a salsa garden. There are kids that have sworn an oath of allegiance to protect the salsa gardening box. They are all in. It’s moments like these that are so inspiring, when you know that gardening is just the right thing to do. It’s so fantastic.”
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