The novel coronavirus has forced many garden-based education programs to find new ways to engage students from a distance. Two programs located in the Southern United States, Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF) in Birmingham, Alabama and The Green Heart Project in Charleston, South Carolina, are finding similar ways to adjust their programs so they can continue to use gardening as an educational tool.
Through a variety of programs including school day lessons, student-run farmers’ markets, summer garden programs, and apprenticeship programs, JVTF and The Green Heart Project are working to transform young people’s educational experiences through growing food. But the organizations started shifting their educational models when in-person interaction became unsafe.
Both organizations have prioritized the distribution of fresh produce to their respective communities. “So many of our students rely on eating breakfast and lunch at school during the school day,” Jesse Blom, Executive Director of The Green Heart Project, tells Food Tank. “The first thing we did was to make sure the immediate needs of our students were met.” The Green Heart Project helped facilitate a shift in school meal programs to meet the needs of students in Charleston schools.
JVTF also began ensuring that students received the produce from school farms, dedicating a full-time staff to tend to and harvest crops planted before school closures. “No matter what our role was before, we are all farmers now,” Executive Director of Jones Valley Teaching Farm, Amanda Storey, tells Food Tank. And while students ran markets to sell their produce within the community, Jones Valley is now partnering with other community agencies to distribute the food for free.
JVTF and The Green Heart Project also pivoted their educational approach to comply with COVID-19 regulations. In immediate response to school closures, both organizations offered online lessons, delivering gardening supplies to students’ homes. “One thing we have learned during this time is how flexible our farm to school programs can be,” explains Blom.
Home gardens also offer parents an opportunity to access fresh fruits and vegetables and cook with their children. “It’s been hard to communicate [what we do to families],” says Storey, “but now, we have parents who are at home with their kids and can actually see it.”
But even as the organizations adapt, they face uncertainty about the future of their programs. “I promise you [our plan] can change in a week. I am learning that nothing is solid right now,” Storey tells Food Tank.
As summer unfolds, The Green Heart Project plans to find a “sweet spot,” says Blom, as they prepare to host an in-person internship program and run a community Farm Stand, while also continuing to offer workshops online.
JVTF is also using this time to rethink their interaction with the local community. “Students have always said the main reason they do [the program] is that they want to give back to their community,” Storey tells Food Tank.
Finding a model that balances curriculum and business while giving back has been a challenge for the organization, says Storey. But the pandemic is allowing them to pause and reevaluate their intentions. As a first step, JVTF will begin sharing seeds with other neighborhood urban farms. They also plan to continue distributing free produce to community agencies focused on providing local food in Birmingham.
Although COVID-19 has changed the way JVTF and The Green Heart Project interact with students, the organizations remain hopeful that they can continue to safely pursue the benefits of garden-based education. “COVID-19 has provided us an opportunity to see what is possible,” Storey tells Food Tank.
Photo courtesy of Jones Valley Teaching Farm