Frus­tra­tion over school gar­dens takes root

Par­ents in Mont­gomery cite re­sis­tance to request for plots on county prop­erty

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MICHAEL BIRN­BAUM

Char­lotte Schoen­e­man thought her daugh­ter’s Takoma Park school would wel­come a par­ent pro­posal to start a veg­etable gar­den; the city typ­i­cally em­braces all things green.

But she and other Mont­gomery County par­ents were re­buffed, told that one per­son’s tomato is an­other one’s main­te­nance night­mare. School of­fi­cials cited al­ler­gies, pests and pos­si­ble sum­mer­time ne­glect as rea­sons for con­cern.

The par­ents, who were in­spired in part by first lady Michelle Obama’s na­tional cam­paign to fight child­hood obe­sity, said they’re puz­zled by the school sys­tem’s de­ci­sion. In D.C., which has the high­est rate of ado­les­cent obe­sity in the coun­try, sev­eral pub­lic schools have gar­dens, and a re­cently passed law en­cour­ages more. Ar­ling­ton County boasts about 25.

“Veg­etable gar­dens teach kids that there’s more to a meal than just chicken nuggets on a plas­tic tray,” Schoen­e­man said.

Schoen­e­man said that she and other mem­bers of the Tako­maPark Ele­men­tary School PTA have worked to im­prove food at the school, though their vic­to­ries have been mi­nor at best. The school’s prin­ci­pal nixed a pro­posal to use school prop­erty for a gar­den, Schoen­e­man said, say­ing she was wor­ried about at­tract­ing pests.

Schoen­e­man said she en­joys spend­ing time with her sec­ond-grade daugh­ter in their own Takoma Park veg­etable gar­den, which at­tracts nary a rat.

“If you had a fruit tree, you could see the fruit grow­ing on the tree,” Schoen­e­man said. “If you had a lit­tle plot, you could have beans and some chard and some onions. You could watch those things grow­ing on their own.”

Mont­gomery County’s hand­ful of school veg­etable gar­dens came about only be­cause some schools went rogue and built them with­out cen­tral of­fice per­mis­sion. Par­ents whis­per about them and try to shield them from pub­lic­ity.

A Fe­bru­ary let­ter from Su­per­in­ten­gar­dens

dent Jerry D. Weast to the school board out­lined his con­cerns.

“Be­cause veg­etable gar­dens are a food source for pests, cre­ate li­a­bil­i­ties for chil­dren with food al­ler­gies, and have other as­so­ci­ated con­cerns, the Depart­ment of Fa­cil­i­ties Man­age­ment staff has not ap­proved gar­dens de­signed to pro­duce food,” he wrote.

He sug­gested in­stead that the school sys­tem work with the Mont­gomery Depart­ment of Parks to build gar­dens on park prop­erty near school sites. Par­ents say that’s not a mean­ing­ful op­tion for teach­ers who want to make grow­ing food part of the school day.

When the gar­dens are off school grounds, “it’s kind of point­less, be­cause it’s not act­ing within the cur­ricu­lum, and the teach­ers couldn’t em­brace it,” said Kris­ten Dill, an­other Takoma Park Ele­men­tary par­ent. She has a de­gree in hor­ti­cul­ture and grew up in Ne­braska. But she’s been stymied in the sub­ur­ban wilds of Mont­gomery County.

“Else­where, there’s so much en­ergy right now” around veg­etable

“Veg­etable gar­dens teach kids that there’s more to a meal than just chicken nuggets on a plas­tic tray.”

— Char­lotte Schoen­e­man, Takoma Park Ele­men­tary par­ent and PTA mem­ber

gar­dens at schools, Dill said. In Mont­gomery, by con­trast, “it feels like mo­lasses,” she said.

School of­fi­cials said they are work­ing to de­velop stan­dard­ized plans for con­tainer gar­dens that schools could use as soon as this spring. The school sys­tem also has al­lowed some prop­erty near ad­min­is­tra­tive build­ings — not schools — to be used for com­mu­nity veg­etable gar­dens. But many par­ents and com­mu­nity ad­vo­cates say that’s not enough.

“ There are school sys­tems around the coun­try that are em­brac­ing this,” said Gor­don Clark, di­rec­tor of Mont­gomery Vic­tory Gar­dens, a group push­ing for com­mu­nity gar­dens. “Any school that wants to do it should have some sup­port from the school sys­tem to do it any way they want.”

Par­ents and teach­ers around Mont­gomery County, in­clud­ing at Takoma Park and Piney Branch ele­men­tary schools and Mont­gomery Blair High School, have tried un­suc­cess­fully to start veg­etable gar­dens.

Mont­gomery of­fi­cials said there is no ban against veg­etable gar­dens and cite the schools that have them to prove their point. But they said they have dis­cour­aged them un­til now due to con­cerns about pests such as rats and ground­hogs, who might be at­tracted to the veg­eta­bles, and with stu­dent al­ler­gies to cer­tain crops. Nev­er­the­less, they’re com­mit­ted to the idea, they said.

“Any school in Mont­gomery County that wants a veg­etable gar­den, there will be a way for them to have a veg­etable gar­den,” said Sean Gal­lagher, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the school sys­tem’s Depart­ment of Fa­cil­i­ties Man­age­ment.

Ini­tially, he said, schools will have an ap­proved tem­plate for a por­ta­ble con­tainer gar­den. Later, “if a school has shown they can do re­ally well with a con­tainer gar­den,” they might be able to move on to more tra­di­tional raised beds. “We just want to give them the right guid­ance to be suc­cess­ful.”

Many other lo­cal school sys­tems have em­braced gar­dens with­out such caveats. The first lady made head­lines when she in­vited stu­dents from Ban­croft Ele­men­tary School in the District to help plant the White House veg­etable gar­den, and she made more head­lines when she in turn vis­ited Ban­croft to help stu­dents plant theirs.

The D.C. Healthy Schools Act, passed in­May, cre­ated a pro­gram that gives grants to D.C. schools to help them set up school gar­dens and en­cour­ages them to cre­ate com­post piles as part of them. At least nine schools have veg­etable gar­dens.

And in Ar­ling­ton, the school sys­tem has en­cour­aged gar­dens with­out ex­ert­ing sig­nif­i­cant di­rect con­trol.

“ There’s no cen­tral pol­icy of ‘ this is where your gar­den’s go­ing to be, this is what you’re go­ing to grow.’ It’s up to the school,” said Frank Bellavia, a spokesman for the school sys­tem.

Bellavia said he had not heard of any is­sues with pests or al­ler­gies and that some­one from the com­mu­nity typ­i­cally main­tains the gar­dens over the sum­mer. Veg­eta­bles from the school gar­dens usu­ally are do­nated to a food bank, he said.

Mean­while, Mont­gomery par­ents have low­ered their ex­pec­ta­tions.

“I’m not re­ally hop­ing for much,” said Schoen­e­man. “I just keep plug­ging away, and maybe some­thing good will hap­pen as the tides turn.”

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