The garden at Loring School is an example of one of those few communal community gardens. Its story begins with a program called Kid’s Cook, an optional after-school cooking class that volunteers Robin Krause, Starla Krause and Susan Telleen started teaching five years ago at Loring Elementary School in Minneapolis. Eager to help students understand and appreciate the origins of food in this age of pre-packaged, processed meals, they focused on the basics of home cooking from scratch. Children learned how to cook a chicken, roast vegetables, bake bread, and make a variety of healthy foods like vegetable stock for soup and curry.
Part two of a three-part series on community gardens. Click here for part one.
Two years into Kid’s Cook, they the three program leaders converted the school courtyard into a modest garden where the children could grow their own ingredients. Now in its third year, the garden has expanded to include many more plants and the beginnings of an orchard. Robin, Starla and Susan have always taken on the bulk of responsibility for garden maintenance, but as the program has grown, so has community and student involvement. The children contributed after-school for the first two years of the garden, and they were encouraged to volunteer over the summer. Just last year, the after-school gardening and cooking classes were incorporated into classroom curriculum in the form of a program dubbed Kids Cook Classroom.
Now, Robin, Starla and Susan (sometimes along with other volunteers) meet with each classroom of children from kindergarten through fifth grade during school hours several times a year. On these occasions, children rotate between lessons in the classroom, the garden and the kitchen. Classroom teachers work with the volunteers in advance to plan these Kids Cook Classroom sessions around a common theme or a topic that the students are studying that year. With almost every class in the school holding one or more sessions a year, there were students working in the garden three to four times a week last fall and spring. The children’s work was therefore largely able to sustain the garden. They learned to harvest, plant and make healthy lunches while acquiring other practical skills and reinforcing lessons like math and measurement as they followed recipes and planted seeds.
Kid’s Cook Classroom and the Loring Schoolyard Garden are delivering on many of the benefits often associated with community gardens. The first of such benefits, unsurprisingly, is building a sense of community-or, instilling in people a sense of ownership over and loyalty to the community that can in turn lead to more active participation in local politics or just personal benefits in the form of feeling more connected. Community gardens are said to promote this sense of community by getting people involved in a joint project (or similar projects in shared space), allowing people to expand their circle of local friends and generally increasing the amount of interaction between community members.
Also unsurprisingly, advocates of community gardens cite neighborhood beautification and the fostering of greater appreciation of nature as benefits. For those gardens that include or emphasize food production, advocates also talk about nutrition benefits that come with “access to nutritionally rich foods” and an increased awareness of the natural forms and origins of food. Though enthusiasts have long linked these nature- and nutrition-related benefits to better physical and mental health for community members, only more recently have scientific and systematic studies in the field of “people-plant interactions” yielded a solid stock of concrete evidence that community gardens can have positive side effects for human well-being. Some “background theories” related to people-plant interactions suggest that gardens and other natural settings reduce stress by offering our systems a break from “the noise, movement, and visual complexity of the modern world.” In The Biophilia Hypothesis, Edward Wilson and Stephen Kellert discuss the ways in which human evolutionary history may in fact necessitate human interaction with nature.
Numerous studies support such hypotheses and highlight the potential impact of Community Gardens on physical and mental health. For example, a study of prison inmates showed that those who have views of greenery from their cells tend to need less medical care and report fewer physical problems than those who have no view of nature. In a 1990 study of cancer patients after they left the hospital, those who agreed to take part in activities that brought them into regular contact with nature improved more rapidly than those who did not.
It is also well known that vegetation “restore[s] oxygen to the air and reduce[s] air pollution” while helping control the surrounding temperature. It stands to reason, then, that the more vegetation in a community, the greater the health benefits for its members. Greening could help mitigate asthma, headaches and other health problems.