OGDEN — Three fifth graders at DaVinci Academy Elementary struggled Thursday morning as together, giggling, they worked to lift a patch of grass for the groundbreaking of a community garden they are building with their classmates on the west side of the school.
The project started about a year and a half ago when students in Jen Kool’s class saw a problem: The people living in the community surrounding the school, many of whom are low income, have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We’re hoping that people can come and just get fruits and vegetables because some people here don’t have fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Even Walters, a fifth grader in Kool’s class.
The community garden is one of numerous projects that have emerged as part of a problem-solving curriculum the school has been implementing over the last few years, according to the school’s STEM Coordinator Eleanor Sather. Other initiatives include a trash cleanup that fourth graders organized, and sixth graders have read literature on racism and worked to identify and address prejudice within the school.
As fifth grade students work to take on food scarcity, the community garden has also led them to learn about and tackle other issues, like drought and water waste. So students replaced some of the lawn outside the school with planter boxes, and they will plant clover in the remaining grass to attract insect pollinators, making the school yard more water-wise.
“We are building this community garden because we are in a desert and in the middle of a drought, and people are wasting fresh, clean water on their lawns, which can’t do anything healthy for you,” Walters said. “But with this garden, we can use the clean water to make fresh food for everyone in the community.”
While students learn how to recognize and solve community problems, teachers have also managed to tie in curriculum from nearly ever subject, Sather noted.
Students wrote thank you notes and invitations to the groundbreaking, and also spent time reading about plants and how to take care of them. They’ve used math to calculate how much mulch and lumber would be needed to build planter boxes.
And, of course, they’ve learned about science as they determined which plants would grow best in the local environment and raised seed starters under grow lights.
“I’ve learned that pineapples can’t grow here, neither can bananas, honestly,” Walters said.
Each student was allowed to pick their own fruit or vegetable to grow in the garden. Walters picked broccoli because she said she likes cheesy broccoli, and her classmate Tristen Pederson picked bell peppers because he said he’s never tasted one before.
After watching their seeds sprout and months of preparation, numerous community groups came together Thursday to help students bring their ideas to fruition. The school had assistance from Ogden City, Weber State University’s Center for Community Engaged Learning, Utah State University’s Master Gardener Program and the Ogden-based nonprofit Foodscaping Utah.
“We need hands, you guys got hands? Who has hands? Alright, everyone’s got hands,” said John Trimble, who founded Foodscaping Utah with his wife, Holly Trimble, to help people learn how to grow their own food. He was instructing students on how to assemble planters. “First you’ve got to get your screw straight, then you’ve got to make sure you don’t screw right into your buddy’s hand.”
Although students finished putting together planters Thursday, an activity that was a long time in the making, there’s a lot more learning to be had in the community garden, Sather said. In the future, students will use the space to journal while observing birds and insects.
The students will continue to monitor and care for the garden during school, while parents have signed up to oversee it in the summer. At the end of each harvest, students will weigh produce to determine how effective their growing techniques have been.
“Ideally, what we’d like to do is train people to be junior master gardeners to help maintain the things,” Sather said.
The food, once grown, will go toward solving food scarcity in the local community. How that will work, Sather added, has yet to be determined.
The U.S. Department of Education has categorized DaVinci Academy as a Title I school, meaning it educates a high concentration of students living in poverty. According to enrollment data from the Utah State Board of Education, approximately 26% of students at the school are considered economically disadvantaged.
Because of the school’s demographics, Sather said one option for distributing the produce would be to send it home with students in need. Students have also discussed sharing their harvest with local homeless shelters, or holding a student-run free or pay-what-you-can farmers market.
Sather said as the school closes out a year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been valuable to students to work on a project that gives them a sense of accomplishment and connection to their community.
“I’m feeling pretty great about the garden, I think it’s going to be pretty cool,” Pederson said. “I’ve never been in a school that’s worked this hard, it’s different.”