Ashley Zappe
“Is it mint?” one boy guessed. “No! That’s strawberries!” another boy shouted. “Onions? Tomatoes? Celery?” I held a paper bag with wispy thin green leaves sticking out the top for the group of 11-year-olds to see. They had no idea what food it could be. Slowly I pulled up the leaves, revealing a bright orange carrot. Within minutes, they were all taking enthusiastic bites of this fresh garden veggie. Once they had guessed the plant, they wanted to taste it—including raw onions!

This was the first day of Earth Care’s Garden Program at the Boys and Girls’ Club this summer. I had picked up the group from the computer room, where they had been seated, playing online games for most of the morning. They were skeptical about going into the garden, or growing and tasting vegetables. One boy told me he didn’t like gardens because you couldn’t grow Flamin’ Hot Cheetos there. But, by the end of the summer, they all were proud of the tomatoes and sunflowers they had planted and fought over the extra scraps of harvested vegetables. They even cheerfully turned the compost pile and sang out our class motto “Fresh is best!”

Garden programs like this offer multiple benefits to the communities they serve. Engaging students in hands-on life-science education in fresh air with living soil and plants and bugs has proven to be an effective tool to increase students’ engagement in learning as well as their overall sense of well-being. Garden education is also an important facet in addressing the larger issue of food security—making sure everyone in our region has access to healthy food. Large areas of Santa Fe city are considered “food deserts” where there are no grocery stores or else limited transportation to grocery stores, making it difficult for the residents, especially those without cars, to obtain nutritious food,.

Knowledge of how to grow your own food makes good food more accessible and more appealing to eat. Research shows that those who know the trials and rewards of growing their own food are more likely to value the food supplied by local farmers and understand that the additional cost of local, organic food reflects the added health and environmental value it brings. In this way, small-scale local agriculture can be a significant boost to the local economy. This is why America encouraged home “victory gardens” during World War II. Given the great programs in our community like Double Up Food Bucks, which allow EBT users to double their purchasing power at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, even those with modest incomes can increase their access to fresh local food. For others, vegetables grown at home or by neighbors are the most cost-effective way to integrate fresh produce into our families’ diets.

Strategies like these, which increase reliable local food production, will be particularly important in the changing climate. As global climate change creates more chaotic and unpredictable weather patterns, we will not be able to rely on food imports from places like California or South America. Currently, 97 percent of our food in New Mexico is imported, and it would only take a major drought or natural disaster to cut off that supply chain. Garden education not only can serve the current 15 percent of Santa Fe’s population that does not receive adequate nutrition; it will also set us up to be more resilient in the face of climate-change-related natural disasters.

Schools and youth organizations have played an important role in establishing knowledge of sustainable food systems and other environmental issues in the generation that will be most affected by it. The Santa Fe Public Schools district has partnered with organizations like Earth Care to provide professional development training to teachers to support the integration of sustainability and climate-change education into classroom courses. Earth Care has taken the lead in developing and serving garden-based environmental education that reaches over 3,500 students per year. This nonprofit provides zero- or low-cost educators to schools, resources and curriculum for teachers, and consultation about maintaining parent and community volunteer programs. And the organization engages youth in relevant applications of sustainability education through practical service-learning opportunities. Earth Care’s youth and AmeriCorps service members participated actively in the implementation of the Santa Fe Food Assessment and subsequent Santa Fe Food Plan. Besides learning to enjoy fresh vegetables from their own gardens, the students are also practicing social justice by distributing the excess to the Food Depot and serving hot healthy meals every week in partnership with Los Amigos del Parque. Because, as one of my summer students told me, “Everyone should be able to eat tomatoes this good.”

Schools that are currently participating in garden-based sustainability education include: Acequia Madre Elementary, Amy Biehl Community School, Aspen Community Magnet School, Carlos Gilbert Elementary, Eldorado Community School, Gonzales Community School, Kearney Elementary, Nava Elementary, Salazar Elementary, Santa Fe High School, Sweeney Elementary and Tesuque Elementary.

For more information about Earth Care and our other sustainability education programs, as well as sustainability resources for teachers, youth and community members, visit www.earthcarenm.org or contact Ashley Zappe, Sustainability Education Program manager at ashley@earthcarenm.org