Cultivating Community Through School Gardens

sign in front of garden

Community Mercantile (The Merc) in Lawrence, Kan., welcomed six new employees to its ranks in the spring of 2010—not at all unusual for our co-op of 130 employees—but these enthusiastic employees were just 14 years old. Their job was to tend to the new 4,000-square-foot garden at neighboring West Junior High as part of a project called "Growing Food Growing West."

When the West project was first conceived, just one year ago, we could not have imagined how this garden would strengthen the relationships our co-op has in our community. The school garden project became a very visible symbol of what was possible—with school gardens, with introducing local foods into the school cafeteria, with youth employment, with changing how young people relate to the foods they eat, with teaching science, and with community partnerships. The garden was and still is bursting with possibilities. 

Built with the help of our community

The West Garden Project was planted in the fertile soil of relationships. The Merc and its sister organization, the nonprofit Community Mercantile Education Foundation (CMEF), are leaders of the project.

The Merc is a 36-year-old food co-op with an extensive outreach and education program that has a strong presence in the Lawrence public schools. Located in a largely residential neighborhood, The Merc is just two short blocks from West Junior High and two neighboring elementary schools.

CMEF was established 11 years ago for the purpose of extending the reach of The Merc's education program and making it possible to apply for grant funds for big projects like Growing Food Growing West.

With a grant for $12,000 from the local Live Well Lawrence initiative and a $6,000 commitment from The Merc, we were on our way to building our garden. Live Well Lawrence funding was used to hire a professional grower to act as garden coordinator. Live Well funds also helped purchase loads of compost, plants, mulch, an irrigation system, and myriad garden and farmers market needs. Funding from The Merc was used to hire six youth to work in the Garden. The students also ran an on-site summer farmers market.

Before ground was broken last spring, we were able to generate excitement and support for the project by establishing a "Giving Garden" inside The Merc. We covered our windows with little "seed packets" each containing the name of a tool or supply we needed for the West Garden. Customers would choose a seed packet, sign their name on it as a commitment that they would purchase the tool, and then deliver it to the store. We received all we needed to begin our work.

After we amassed our tools, we realized we needed a place on-site at West to store them. Mainstreet Credit Union, with a branch inside The Merc, stepped up and paid for a large garden shed to house all of our supplies. Home Depot donated and installed a split-rail cedar fence and arbor that has given our garden a feeling of permanence. Stone was donated for walkways and borders, an organic grower grew many of our starter plants, and volunteers built a garden table and benches. We were building a garden and community relationships at the same time.

Students as Merc employees

Students were hired as regular Merc employees at our $8.00 per hour entry-level wage, with all the same benefits and responsibilities, subject to Kansas labor laws limiting how much they can work and when. The students attended new-hire orientation and received training and regular employee evaluations.

Students worked in the garden doing planting, maintenance, and harvesting. They also learned a lot about business and commerce, running a twice-weekly farmers market at the school that brought in over $4,500 to be used for the continuation of the project. More importantly, they became very visible leaders in our community. They gave presentations, led garden tours, spoke at two state conferences, appeared regularly in our local paper, and blogged about their experiences through a local wellness website. In November, we hosted an end-of-season community dinner at the school, using produce from the garden. Over 230 community members came to celebrate our collective success.

In its first year, West Garden produced over 1,000 pounds of produce, with 280 pounds of this going directly into the West cafeteria for all students to enjoy. West is the first school in the Lawrence District to enjoy local produce grown right on school grounds.

With last year's success behind us, we already have our shovels in the soil for this year. At West, we are adding 100 feet each of blackberries and raspberries as well as nine fruit trees. We are also establishing a small off-site garden at a nearby organic farm where we can grow more volume to be able to sell produce to The Merc. A small edible garden is being planted at the front entry to The Merc and will be tended by the students. In addition, we are building new gardens at two neighboring elementary schools, with West students acting as mentors at these gardens. Our trio of school gardens is now entitled "Growing Food, Growing Health."

Why do this?

Our education and outreach department has been building relationships in our community for more than 20 years. Our outreach efforts in the community help define who we are. In a way that is very genuine, it has become a strong part of our brand. Through the partnership with CMEF the West Garden project has brought us to a whole new level of community involvement. It has generated an incredible amount of community support and attention.

Most importantly, the West Garden has helped build excitement and support for farm-to-school efforts in our community. It has been a shining example of what's possible when co-ops, communities, schools, and businesses work together to create change.

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