As “go-green” and “go-local,” continue to be trendy phrases in many cities across the United States, it may come as a surprise to learn that a public school in Boston, Massachusetts decided to look thousands of miles away for advice about how to plant a student garden.
Teacher Julie White found that the lessons of 11 year old Maria Cecilia Vasquez, from Honduras, were just the thing to get her students excited about planting. She introduced them to the book, The Good Garden written by Katie Smith Milway.
In the book, Vasquez talks about her family’s struggle to manage a successful farm in the mountains of Honduras and about how, with a few small changes like crop alternation and composting, they improved their lives and the lives of many of their friends and neighbors.
“I’m viewed as quite authentic…I can point to my family’s history. We didn’t know how to grow food very well ourselves, but we used these new methods and now it’s highly productive and a training farm for the whole region.”
Vasquez is 22 years old now. Along with helping with the family farm, she works in microfinance.
“Looking outside our borders for good ideas”
Author Katie Smith Milway learned of the Vasquez family years ago while working in development and food security herself. She was inspired by their success.
“I was always struck by the very smart things that people with very few resources were doing and how much we, in North America, can learn from them.”
With unemployment in the U.S. at 9.1%, more and more Americans are forced to do make do with less. About 70 percent of kids at Edward Everett Elementary School are qualified to receive free or reduced school lunch. Milway decided the time was right to write a book based abroad but aimed at a US audience.
“Now we are humbled…it’s a great time to bring stories to our schools because we are looking outside our borders for good ideas and there are a lot of them…and I’m delighted to see kids taking them in.”
A cross examination by Boston students
On this rainy autumn day nearly 40 students from Ms. White’s class file into the school auditorium. The room is half-filled with bookshelves on wheels. In this small school in one of Boston’s lower income neighborhoods the auditorium doubles as the school library. The squeak of children’s shoes eventually settles as the students take their seats directly on the floor.
Hands shoot into the air and questions for Maria Cecelia Vasquez pour out.
“What was it like planting corn? What insects attacked those plants? What kind of feelings did you have when planting? Did you ever get to have fun instead of just working? How much work did it take to make a lot of money?”
Though young people can be shy in the company of adults, students here clearly make the most of their time with Vasquez. No damp autumn weather slows them down.
After questions are answered the students scramble to push open the heavy blue-painted doors that lead out to the schoolyard. They want to show Vasquez and Milway their garden. Like Vasquez, they’ve used local plants, organic compost (produced by each grade in the school), and raised beds (similar to the terraced land that Vasquez’s family sculpted) to enhance their growing.
The rain pours down. Fifth grader Isaiah Gomes sides up to one of the plots. His hand disappears for a moment behind the dripping green stems of orange and purple flowers.
As he brings his hand back into view, he holds up his prize- a bright, golden-colored squash. Although this one is about the size of his hand, he insists that others have been nearly a foot long.
He gazes at the squash with a joy that most parents only dream their kids will feel towards vegetables.
At Edward Everett Elementary School the squash were successful this year. Students also grew beans, radishes and many flowers to encourage pollination and to serve as natural pesticides.
The schoolyard fence didn’t hold them back. They took the lessons they learned and visited local shelters in South Boston. They constructed raised garden beds there too. In doing so they helped an even wider community of residents learn about -and taste – good gardening.
Student Thalia Cruz said the work wasn’t always easy but she liked it a lot.
“We worked our butts off!” she said proudly.
Hard work pays off!
Teacher Julie White was impressed with how quickly her students understood that gardening takes hard work no matter where you live.
“When I brought the project to students they thought it was very intriguing that someone so far away was having so much trouble gardening when we don’t have that kind of trouble here in America. And we talked about food security here in America and what that meant to us.”
Most Everett students are more familiar with the aisles in a grocery store then the rows in a farm field, but White adds,
“Across the city… money is an issue for everyone, finances. When you go the store and you want to buy good produce, it’s expensive… I feel it’s a challenge for most families because, what’s gonna feed my family? Buying four cans of SpaghettiOs or a cantaloupe – which would be the same price – or a squash… Having community gardens makes those vegetables and that healthy food accessible right there.”
Maria Cecelia Vasquez says she sees a lot in common between her rural mountain home and the rainy urban neighborhood where she now stands.
“You have to fight – really- to improve your lives. You need to use the resources you have before you look for someone to just give you something.”
In writing the story of Maria Cecilia Vasquez, Katie Smith Milway’s The Good Garden teaches young people to be unafraid of taking action themselves and getting their hands dirty. But teacher Julie White thinks the story teaches students about a lot more than just growing fresh foods.
“It starts first with self. If you’re learning something here and working with a country like Honduras…what a great connection for kids to say, ‘not only am I doing what I’m doing in my own community- helping at shelters in my own community- but I’m reaching outside of this country. Because it’s a world…this is a worldview. This is not just about me and my backyard, and me and the food that I’m eating- but what about, ‘how is someone doing in Afghanistan or Honduras?’ I think they got that world view from that.”