Farming Our Schools

Guest Blog by Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

(This is the first in a continuing series on the subject of gardens and schools.)

When is the last time you walked around an urban public high school in the United States? For most of us, it’s been a while. As a former high school teacher I like going to high schools and I will tell you what I notice when I walk around. It’s not the dilapidated buildings, the lack of experienced teachers, or the missing vocational and practical trades that disappeared a long time ago with shrinking budgets. I notice land. I see opportunity.

What some say is the last vestige of the “commons” in America, our public school system sits on an incredible amount of land! Walk around a public high school and you see land that is not being used; it’s either being under-utilized or it is completely abandoned. Pavement and asphalt is the default, and green-space upkeep costs too much money for strapped urban districts. Was it ever used? I don’t know, but it’s time to utilize this public space for the community.

As we stare at our nation’s expanding waistlines and the “franken-foods” that dominate our store shelves, we realize that what the communities of our great nation need is real food. We’ve watched the obesity rates in our children triple in the last two decades, and we are left with no choice but to creatively respond to this epidemic. If we don’t, there is a good chance they may become the first generation in our history to live a shorter life span than their parents.

As a Government and Economics teacher in a deeply urban school in California, I came face to face with disturbing daily realities. Last year, a 16 year old Latina student came up to me in astonishment and asked, “Are you telling me that a lemon is a fruit?” Equally astonished are the students that walk out to the school garden and marvel at the sweet peas they can pick fresh off the vine. “I never knew that came out of a flower,” I’ve heard them gasp. They recoil at the sight of dirt touching a piece of produce, yet they don’t blink at paying $2 for bottled water that is less regulated than the water coming out of their tap. I don’t blame my students for a system that produces 3,800 calories per day per person (we only need half that amount) and then uses the most sophisticated marketing tools on the planet to get our youth to consume them. As a teacher, I have learned that you must accept your students “where they are” because getting angry about how they got there is wasted energy. Accept the challenge and then work like hell to help them reach their potential. I’ve accepted that the industrialized food companies got to my students first, and now I know through local food production in the schools, I can help them become healthier once again.

Even though I came from California, I now call the District of Columbia my home. And while the seasons have changed (we don’t even have seasons in California!) the vision behind food production in the schools is no different. This land in public high schools could begin the process of re-connecting young people with food, especially because schools represent the center of communities. Everyday, kids go to school, parents pick kids up from school, after-school programs, dances, talent shows, it all happens at the school. Through “food production” at our local public schools we can address myriad community needs: childhood obesity, inner city access to food, local economic distress, global warming and environmental damage.

Picture this. Schools in DC choose to use the vast amount of its unused land to create school “farms.” Students in high school are engaged in a curriculum where, through the production of food for their community, they learn the most essential knowledge about nutrition, the health of our planet, social justice and history. In addition, the farm employs the students as farm interns, giving them valuable tools in leadership and hard work and the caring of their community. Most food is sold into the community, but portions are given to food banks and shelters supporting those populations on the margins. Food dollars, which may have otherwise been spent at convenience stores and fast food restaurants, will now be spent in the community improving the local economy and creating jobs. A study conducted by Local First and Civic Economics found that out of every $100 spent on non-local purchases, $57 left the local economy, whereas, if that same $100 dollars was spent in local businesses, only $32 left. This 25% increase of money that flows through a local economy becomes local spending, job creation and elevated incomes. In our picture, the potential increase stays in the community through student stipends, the hiring of workers, and the buying of local inputs for the gardens.

These students don't need to become urban farmers, but maybe some will. Others may become chefs, or teachers, or one of the hundred other jobs related to our new local food system. What we know they will become are better eaters, better consumers, and future community leaders. Let our schools once again be the institutions that nourish not just our mind, but our body as well.

(Pictured above: Students Farming in West Contra Costa County CA.)
Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl is Program Coordinator, Urban Tilth, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He can be reached at,


Sarah said…
Detroit has a very interesting example of this model at Catherine Ferguson Academy, it's high school for teen moms and pregnant girls:
Chris Strand said…
Thank you very much for the post on school gardening. I think that giving kids the opportunity to try gardening is a great gift. I have been working with our staff at Winterthur to teach a group of kids how to grow vegetables each summer - we don't charge them for the program, we just want to get them gardening!

and here is our planting list:
Vinnie Bevivino said…
With everyone talking about school gardens, its great to hear a conversation about production-based urban farming on public school land. I've written about this, and invite you to read a testimony I've written for the DC Council.
Crystal said…
Excellent post, and I'm so happy Michelle Obama is taking up this issue. Our schoolchildren need to be on the frontlines of the locally-grown nutritionally-sound healthy food movement, and that would truly be a step in the right direction if the schools utilized the excess land for the purpose of growing produce.
Patrice said…
For me, it's good to convert those vacant areas in schools into either a flower garden or a vegetable garden.

Great post by the way.

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