With Schools Closed, Their Gardens Take on a New Role

By Tove Danovich for Civil Eats

When the schools closed in Cedarville, Arkansas in March, Tara McDaniel (pictured above) was told it would only be for two weeks. So this service member with FoodCorps—an Americorps grantee that works with schools in resource-limited areas—set to work planting crops her students could come back to.

It’s clear now that schools around the country will be closed until at least next fall, but McDaniel hasn’t stopped gardening. “I want people passing by on their daily walks to see that [the garden] is still growing and that our community still grows and continues,” she says.

The closures came at a rough time for school gardens—which had either just planted their spring crops or were planning to plant them. Though anything related to food production is generally considered “essential” and allowed to operate during the COVID-19 outbreak, the decision to keep a school garden open depends on the school and staff running the program.

“As soon I heard schools were closing, I emailed the principals of every school we work with and said, ‘We want to keep gardening’,” says Michelle Welton, executive director of Grow Portland. The organization works with 13 low-income schools in Oregon, and its staff is still maintaining the gardens in 10 of those schools.

Instead of planting the gardens with the intention of using them as learning gardens—each one seeded with a few carrots here, some beans there, and a hodgepodge of other produce for variety—Grow Portland’s staff is pivoting to use the beds for production. In lieu of each school growing a bit of everything, Welton says, the gardens are now working more like urban farms, with entire beds of carrots or leafy greens.