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Youth Grow: School Gardens That Connect Students to Food and Nature

in our own words youth grow

Why School Gardens?

Youth Grow supports schools in creating opportunities for students to connect and expand their conceptions of food and community through the acts of growing, eating, and being outside. 

“We do all of these technical things, but being a part of the school community is the most important thing,” Amoreena Guerrero, the Youth Grow Director, said. “By partnering with schools, we want to expand and deepen those relationships.”

Youth Grow Garden Educators each work at one to two schools in four to eight classrooms annually. Many Garden Educators also work as Community Coordinators for Home Gardens in the neighborhoods where their schools are. By developing these deep and long-lasting relationships, Garden Educators can use the garden as a space that reflects the community and is integrated into students’, educators’, and families’ lived daily experiences. In turn, the community can help sustain a thriving garden over time. 

Growing Gardens has found that most schools do not have the capacity to designate a staff member to care for a school garden. The state of school gardens, then, depends on the efforts of individual teachers, staff, students, and families, and this lack of continuity means that gardens often fall into disuse. 

Youth Grow believes that school should be a place where all students experience inclusion and care, and develop a sense of their value. A garden in disrepair tells students the opposite story. Meanwhile, a thriving garden offers not only learning opportunities, but a site for entire communities to bond and exercise autonomy over their food systems, connecting the belonging and joy that many students experience in their wider communities to the school environment. 


How It Works

Currently, Youth Grow Garden Educators work at 10 elementary schools and one high school in the Portland area.  About 3,000 students, from the pre-K through the high school level, currently participate in Youth Grow programming, which is free of charge for participating schools. Youth Grow programming is tailored to the developmental needs of each grade level, from practicing fine motor skills with early childcare students to cultivating leadership skills with high schoolers. At every age, the programming aims to help students explore their place in the world through cultivating empathy and teamwork. Growing Gardens believes that for students of all grade levels, food can serve as a powerful avenue through which to explore these ideas, as it is part of everyone’s lived experience and brings in cultural connections and hands-on learning.

While Youth Grow helps students develop technical gardening skills and introduces concepts relating to science and culture in a hands-on format, the focus of the programming is to help students create early positive experiences in the garden, and in turn form positive self-identities and relationships with one another. Students who have participated in Youth Grow have said that garden programming has helped them take a break from screen time, value time outdoors, become more adventurous with trying new foods, and notice more about their surroundings.

“My hope is that in learning to value nature, someday kids will want to protect it,” Betsy Lattig, Youth Grow Lead Educator, said.

Youth Grow programming takes the form of in-class lessons, afterschool activities, summer school programs, and take-home activities, led by Garden Educators. Many of the schools that Youth Grow works with are Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) Community Schools, part of the broader SUN Services system, which serve as centers for student and family services through programming such as afterschool programs and on-site food pantries. At these schools, Youth Grow programming relating to afterschool activities and family services is offered in collaboration with SUN.


Justice and Anti-Racism

Growing Gardens believes that you can’t talk about food systems and gardening without talking about racial injustice, poverty, displacement, and gentrification. Food systems are at their healthiest and strongest when all communities can participate equitably and exercise autonomy. This is reflected in Youth Grow’s efforts to provide culturally-specific programming and to prioritize working with Title I schools. 

It is important for educators to work from this foundation within the context of public schools as a whole, as the public education system is heavily influenced by institutionalized racism, and in their individual classrooms, where these broader issues can manifest themselves in smaller ways. Youth Grow strives to support educators with a variety of backgrounds, and encourages educators to teach in ways that honor their identities and cultures. This creates an environment where students are encouraged to bring these things into the classroom as well, and to celebrate each other’s differences. Youth Grow believes that education is not a one-sided relationship. Teachers learn from their students just as their students learn from them, and everyone benefits when schools and food systems are healthy and just.  

For Youth Grow educators, fostering an inclusive classroom environment also means ensuring that everyone has equal chances to participate and receive feedback, and that all students are subject to the same level of enforcement of the same rules.


Sharing Resources

While Growing Gardens is currently at capacity for direct partnerships with schools, the organization serves as the regional education hub of the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network, enabling us to support school garden programs we can’t work at directly. “We want to learn from our experiences so others can do the same,” Amoreena said.

Growing Gardens believes that helping to power a movement rather than focusing on our own individual mission is the most effective way to create a more just and equitable society. This looks like sharing resources and building sustainable relationships with people doing similar work.

70% of Portland Public Schools have school gardens, and all of these gardens have the potential to serve as powerful sites of education and community-building, while all schools have the potential to hold such spaces. In order to reach this potential, all of these gardens and schools deserve equitable attention and care. Youth Grow is one part of an ecosystem of educators, families, and students who are working hard to make this a reality.

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