FROM THE GROUND, UP // STUDENTS CREATE HEALTHY EATING HABITS

New children greet the Druid City Garden Project curriculum with naive wonder.
Wait, so you really can grow food? What about ice cream, can you grow ice cream?
Originally, the Druid City Garden Project was intended to be a part of a nationwide trend of using vacant, urban spaces to grow produce to sell for subsidized rates and give away for free to anyone willing to help out with the farming. Instead, the first space they found was at University Place Elementary School. The project’s staff and volunteers realized then that they could potentially make a different kind of impact.
If only they could grow ice cream.
The children’s questions might seem cuter if their eating habits were not so troubling. Instead, they are a haunting reminder of just how far Alabama has drifted away from its not-so-distant agricultural past.
Ironically, Alabama is one of few states in the U.S. where weather conditions are fair enough that produce can be grown year-round without pause. Temperatures reached a record low for the state during this past winter, and still food was produced.
Given the circumstances, Lindsay Turner, executive director for the Druid City Garden Project, finds it more than just a little unsettling that the concept of growing their own food now seems foreign to so many children.
“We’ve lost our understanding of why eating food that’s grown locally is important,” she said. “In Alabama, that’s a remarkable change.”
Of course this could have something to do with the economic demographics of the schools she has worked in, too. In almost all of the schools, at least 80 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. For a family living on a compromised income, getting to choose where their food comes from and how it is grown can seem like a luxury they can’t afford.
Before working with the garden project, Turner headed Homegrown Alabama Farmer’s Market, where she helped to implement an incentive program for customer’s using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly called food stamps. With the garden project, low-income families are introduced to farmer’s markets directly, where they can purchase fresh produce from the garden project at subsidized rates.
Turner insists that poverty should not prevent a family for accessing healthy food.
“This is critically important to understand,” Lindsay said. “Alabama is one of the most obese states in the nation, and a growing number of our children and adults are running into these health conditions like hypertension, blood clots, high blood pressure.”
The goal of the Druid City Garden Project is to reach children in the critical habit-forming phases of their youth and change the way they think about food and how it is produced. The project was founded in 2010 after Andrew Grace and his wife, Rashmi, filmed a documentary called Eating Alabama that chronicled a year they spent exploring and eating only locally grown food. Since then, the garden project has moved into two other schools, Woodland Forest Elementary School and the Sunshine High School in Hale County. In the fall, they will implement programs at the Tuscaloosa Magnet School and Oakdale Elementary School.
The project’s staff and volunteers designed a curriculum for students that is based on the state’s education standards. Now, instead of learning about plants in a classroom, the children can put their feet in the dirt and grow their own.
Josalyn Randall, garden manager for the project and a professor in New College at the University, guides the students along. Randall, now 34, has been growing her own food and eating locally since she was an undergraduate in college and now spends about 30 hours gardening each week. For her, sharing her knowledge with students is a labor of love.
“The kids are willing to try foods that they wouldn’t have before because they’ve had a part in growing them,” Randall said. “They’ve started those seeds, they’ve watched them grow into a plant. They’ll eat radishes and arugula and salad mix right out of the garden. Kids will come to the farm stands with their parents and they say “Mom, buy that broccoli, I grew that!’”
With her help, the University Place students learn gardening in all of its hideous glory. To their horror, Randall tells them how “amazingly good” worm poop is for their food. They even have their own worm castings, housed in a bin where the worms chew through mounds of discarded cabbage and other types of greens. The bin’s stench is unbearable, but the composting produced is necessary, since the garden’s red clay soil is too mineral-rich to produce food reliably without it. Also, Randall is pretty sure the garden used to be a parking lot at some point.
The garden is divided into multiple sections, and the students work primarily with plants grown in raised beds, growing produce like radishes, collard greens and kale.
“They do tastings sometimes and the lessons will be completely centered around the food, and they’ll get to harvest and actually prepare a meal,” Randall said.
That’s usually a lesson for the older kids. To meet the state’s education requirements, the lesson involves using traditional math skills to measure and weigh the food for the meal.
As part of the project’s Budding Entrepreneur’s program, the students learn basic business and financial literacy skills by helping to run the weekly farm. Generally, most items are sold for only a dollar or two, cheaper than grocery store prices and even the other farmer’s market vendors.
Starting in the fall, University Place students will run their garden without the garden project’s help. Though the garden project aims to spend only three years working directly with each school, they have been with University Place for four years, since the school’s original garden was destroyed by the 2011 tornado.
“This year, the students be fully responsible for starting their seeds, doing their planting,” Randall said.
To prepare for the transition, teachers from the school have already formed a garden committee. Each participating grade level will have specific responsibilities: third grades will choose “water leaders” responsible for keeping the plants hydrated, fourth graders will run the produce stand and fifth graders will choose harvest leaders.
Randall said she will not be too far away, though. The garden project staff will serve as consultants for the school during their first transition year, and Randall plans to grow back up plants to continue supplementing the produce grown by students.
Now, since students are out of school for summer, Randall and interns for the garden project continue to cultivate the 2,500 square foot garden space at University Place to continue raising money for the project by selling produce.
Each summer, Randall seems to run into more students at the farmer’s market. Usually, they excitedly wave to her and shout “Miss Randall!” before dragging their accompanying adult over to the stand.
“The idea is to have a ripple effect,” Randall said. “We hope to change the kid’s eating habits and affect their parents’ eating habits and their neighbor’s eating habits. I think this is something that connects people to a bigger community.”

About The Author

Judah Martin is a senior studying journalism at the University of Alabama.

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