School garden feeds hunger for fresh food and community

(Front) Jamarion Hill and Josiah Washington; (back) Gary Craig, executive assistant, Millennium Energy; Linda Matthews, CEO, Millennium Energy; Elizabeth Cone, Taft resource coordinator; Veronda Washington, Josiah’s mother; and Tonya Jackson, Jamarion’s mother.

(Front) Jamarion Hill and Josiah Washington; (back) Gary Craig, executive assistant, Millennium Energy; Linda Matthews, CEO, Millennium Energy; Elizabeth Cone, Taft resource coordinator; Veronda Washington, Josiah’s mother; and Tonya Jackson, Jamarion’s mother.

Fifth-grader Jamarion Hill was so eager to be interviewed at his school garden that he wanted to wear a tie.

“The garden is important to him,” said his mother, Tonya Jackson. “He needed this. He’s very hands on. The garden keeps the kids busy and gives them something to do.”

Fifth-grader Jamarion Hill

Fifth-grader Jamarion Hill

The community garden at William Howard Taft STEM Elementary School is in raised beds built by the Cincinnati Bengals. It is the dream-come-to-life for many in this Mt. Auburn neighborhood, including Taft resource coordinator Elizabeth Cone and permaculturist Linda Matthews, CEO of Millennium Energy. The two met last year, hatching plans for a garden that Cone said, “is all STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).”

A $5,000 Summer of STEM grant from the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative and presenting sponsor Duke Energy Foundation brought the garden to life. Summer of STEM is a regional effort to connect students, parents and educators to summer activities that keep kids active and engaged during a typical time of academic loss. Grants ensure access to families of all income levels.

Cone has bigger plans for this “Green STEMs” pilot project to fill the void of a food desert, establish a pop-up farmer’s market, build community and introduce healthy eating. “I thought I’d get pushback from the kids, but we didn’t,” she said. “They were excited and especially proud when things started growing.”

Matthews collaborated on the grant and curriculum with nonprofit Permaganic “to make sure kids had an understanding of urban gardening as a whole ecosystem and to help them learn and do something about climate change.” Permagenic trains teens in sustainable agriculture in Over-the-Rhine.

“The garden isn’t just a good idea,” Matthews said. “There’s also science behind it. For example, students have learned about soil remediation, water runoff and heat impact.”

“When we got into those beds with a broad fork to rip the plastic away, the kids were ecstatic when they saw worms underneath,” said Luke Ebner, executive director of Permaganic. “We literally brought the beds back to life, and when each team got their own bed, we saw a shift and they took ownership.”

The Mt. Auburn Community Council donated $200 for seedlings.

Taft Sixth-grader Josiah Washington

Taft Sixth-grader Josiah Washington

It was a sweltering July day during this visit, but the beds looked lush and well tended. Jamarion and sixth-grader Josiah Washington took turns watering and weeding.

“Working in the garden was more fun than I thought it would be,” Josiah said. “It taught me a lot about food, like you don’t want too many flowers on the plant or it won’t make food,” he said, picking a few blossoms away. His favorites include mint, basil and kale. “I just eat it right out of the garden.”

Did the reality meet the dream? Cone says she imagined “exactly this, where students, families and the community could come together and get involved.”

“We’re showing kids the environmental and biology angles of STEM in the garden, plus how to have better food in the urban core of the city,” said Mary Adams, GSCS program manager. “It’s a hands-on experience they can then connect to the classroom.”

Adams sees the Taft garden as a model for 10 more like it next year. That meshes with the school plan to expand with a market that will teach kids not just to grow, but price and sell their produce said Matthews.

She hopes to attract additional funding to expand the garden and its mission.

Part of increasing the circle of the garden included sending plants and soil home with students after the June session. “We don’t want this to stop here,” Matthews said. “We want the kids to take it home so that it becomes a daily change in life.”

Millennium Energy CEO Linda Mathews with Taft Elementary students Josiah Washington and Jamarion Hill

Millennium Energy CEO Linda Mathews with Taft Elementary students Josiah Washington and Jamarion Hill

Cone and Matthews are organizing a September garden showcase and celebration when the harvest will be sold to parents, with proceeds returning to the garden. Participating students will be awarded “young urban gardener” certificates and T-shirts.

And there’s more. Students will harvest pumpkins for Halloween. Then they will start seeds in late winter, sow them in spring, tend them during summer and harvest their produce for a market in fall 2017. During the school year, the garden will become an after-school project.

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