Climate change calls for a new approach to food education.The American Southwest has suffered unprecedented drought conditions in recent years. Lack of precipitation, scarcity of water, and rising temperatures brought the four corners region—New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado—to extreme drought classification according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in the summer of 2018.
Specifically, Southwest Colorado faced exceptional drought this past growing season, meaning the area saw widespread crop and pasture losses and shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells, creating water emergencies. Aware of the changing landscape of food production in response to drought, the local nonprofit Montezuma School to Farm Project (MSTFP) is educating students in preschool through eighth grade on how to prepare for a changing food system as a result of climate change.
In line with Colorado State Education Standards, MSTFP teaches more than 1,500 students per month across five elementary schools, one preschool, and one middle school in Montezuma County, Colorado. Each school has its own garden, managed and taught by AmeriCorps garden coordinators. Lessons are built to show kids in each school how their actions contribute to the productivity and sustainability of each garden.
Erin Bohm, an experiential education curriculum developer, has served as a garden educator and education manager for MSTFP. She is the author of the Drought Resilient Curriculum series for the program, a project funded by a grant from the Colorado State Conservation Board.
“Failure in the garden, when you’re not relying on those crops to feed your family, is a good time to experiment. Maybe it will never be a reality and you’ll never have to rely on yourself to grow your own food, but you will need to rely on yourself to do a lot of things,” Bohm told Food Tank. Regardless of whether students pursue a future in food production, “drought-impacted environments, communities, cities, and nations will require increasing self-sufficiency and adaptation from their citizens.”
Bohm aimed to build a guide for drought-resilient education, a culminating concept of local indigenous practices, community values of the Southwest, and soil, plant, and earth science. She believes drought-resilient education prepares younger generations to adapt and participate in an evolving food system and society in the face of climate change.
Montezuma County, Colorado, suffered a stiffly regulated watering schedule and a shorter watering season in 2018. Increasing temperatures are affecting the resilience and productivity of many local species and have caused the growing season to increase by as much as 10 days from the average length in the 1980s. The consequences of climate change in an agricultural community threaten the livelihood of many families. Lack of access to water throughout the growing season and the threat of fire due to drought are forcing farmers to reconsider how to successfully grow food.
“When students are young, they are still deeply connected to the natural world,” says Bohm. “Teaching about drought properly and teaching how to adapt to drought without being fearful and gloomy is crucial. I hope people are framing drought solutions in ways that have to do with the water cycle and not the end of their community as they know it.” Bohm believes that by finding different ways to engage students’ interest in the environment and promoting stewardship rather than hopelessness, teachers can “foster deep, real, authentic love for the garden that’s connected to feeling comfortable and at home.”
In order to cultivate the interests of a wide range of students in the garden, Bohm has constructed a diverse curriculum involving topics related to science, indigenous cultures, and sociology.
“Encouraging students to follow their specific interest complemented by a love and comfort of the natural world will make a potentially really dark and depressing topic into a fascination,” Bohm hopes. Her drought-resilient manuals focus on observation and reflection of each working part of the garden as a means of promoting nutrition, self-sufficiency, and community in the food system.
Getting Dirty in a Drought
Early lessons in the curriculums focus on soil health: soil composition, the creatures that thrive in healthy soil, and how certain gardening and composting practices can enhance soil. Bohm believes garden educators need to inspire students to “develop a love for soil ecology, learn how local soil works, and how to keep water in it. Detailed knowledge and familiarity with soil will infinitely benefit the science programs and the success of gardens in schools.”
From soil, the lessons delve into the importance of crop variety throughout the year, and how to ensure abundant production both quantitatively and nutritionally. In a drought, the objective is to optimize how a plant responds to low water conditions while maximizing the nutrient composition of the plant.
“We don’t eat food to feel full. We could eat a handful of sand and feel full. We eat to get nutrients out of food,” Bohm says to Food Tank. “If you’re going to spend the time and resources in a stressed environment to grow food, it should be good for you in a very comprehensive way.”
Students are learning to identify which plants will survive a wide range of temperatures and adapt with a changing growing season, and how different varieties of a plant can expand the potential for production in difficult climates year-round.
Connecting the Past
The drought manuals also look to the original inhabitants of the Southwest for their knowledge of hundreds of years of successful dryland cultivation. Bohm integrated indigenous Puebloan knowledge into primarily European systems of thinking to connect ancient cultural practices to the earth science language that students are learning in their public-school education.
In collaboration with Crow Canyon Archeological Center, Bohm worked with archaeologists and Hopi people to complete the Pueblo Farming Project and construct a curriculum for Hopi growing practices. Bohm discovered that many of the pre-existing concepts in modern drought science were the same as traditional Hopi practices dating back to the mid-1300s. Her greatest discovery in researching Hopi growing tradition was witnessing how “the Hopi people’s belief systems that reinforce their agricultural techniques have remained intact despite colonization.”
The Hopi people’s holistic approach to growing food is a balance of spirituality, community, and science. Bohm explains, “there is no way to separate the reason Hopi people do what they do to grow corn from the reason Hopi people do what they do to be spiritually healthy. The success of their corn and the success of their culture’s survival are the same thing.” The Hopi people are devoted to their culture and are steadfast in their ways of food production, a theme seen in ranching communities around the Southwest. The great risk involved in failure brings people together under a common goal and practice. Bohm believes that faith and community play an important role in the success of a food system and society.
A Community Effort
“Disasters like drought lead to work and cooperation,” says Bohm. Recognizing food production as a multi-level system involving more than just science will ensure students leave garden programming with a sense of autonomy and empowerment to deal with the challenges of climate change as a member of a local and global community.
“Anyone who has tried to nurture a living thing realizes that there is an incredible amount of uncertainty and therefore a need for faith in your practice,” Bohm says. “You can learn self-sufficiency up to a certain point, and then you need your neighbors to be self-sufficient with you. That is what drought and a warming planet will teach us.”