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MDUSD Garden Education Program

Oct 30, 2016 10:00PM ● By Jennifer Neys

Pictured is Tamara Helfer (back row) and fifth graders from Fair Oaks Elementary who celebrate after unloading two yards of fresh compost to be used in the school garden. The compost was donated and delivered by Republic Services.

A new garden education program sprang up this school year, currently named the MDUSD Garden Education Program.  The purpose is to increase student access to healthy, locally grown foods and further student and teacher access to NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). The model schools include Sequoia Elementary and Fair Oaks Elementary in Pleasant Hill, Bancroft Elementary in Walnut Creek and El Monte Elementary in Concord.


According to Tamara Helfer, Project Director, the project is a continuation of the pilot MDUSD Farm to School Program that was started in 2014-2015 and continued in 2015-2016 with funding through a competitive USDA Planning Grant, with additional support from Republic Services, the Foundation for Pleasant Hill Education, and Sequoia Science Education. In fact, the education program won a Leadership in Sustainability Award in Food System Innovation from Sustainable Contra Costa last September.


“In 2015-2016, we brought Life Lab to do a day of teacher Professional Development in Pleasant Hill, and for the whole school year, we piloted weekly lessons in the school garden at Sequoia Elementary with garden educator Terri Edwards-Nixon. This proved to be such a popular program that we have expanded the pilot for 2016-2017 to the four elementary schools, with joint funding from MDUSD administration and from school site funds,” said Helfer. The initial activities were centered around Pleasant Hill schools because of the support in the community for Green programs, including the all-school lunch waste composting program at Sequoia Elementary (supported by the City with composting bins), and the Pleasant Hill Education Initiative Green Team.


This school year, the focus of the programs is on Science in the Garden, and the garden is providing a hands-on "demonstration classroom” or “outdoor classroom” as the elementary schools are beginning their rollout to Next Generation Science Standards.

A goal of the program is to increase student engagement and make them more receptive to investigating the bounty of a garden. “Many studies have shown that when students see plants growing in the garden at school and participate in growing food, they are much more likely to try that food, and they are much more likely to ‘like’ the food when they try it,” said Helfer. The program continues to use curriculum from Life Lab out of Santa Cruz as well as course material used by Berkeley USD. “We are also writing our own and tailoring it to the needs of each specific site,” she said.


At Sequoia Elementary, there are weekly lessons for grades 1, 2 and 3 with Terri Edwards-Nixon. At Fair Oaks, Helfer teachers all grades, and each class meets once every two weeks. Time will also be spent with the students this year talking about careers that are related to the garden, including the field of medicine and research.


“We’re really pleased with the growing community support this fall: Sloats Garden Centers donated a huge amount of seeds and also gift certificates for our four school gardens; the CC Master Gardeners donated plants to the four schools; Republic Services donated two yards of compost to Fair Oaks recently, and Bill Wygal of Bill’s Ace donated a garden shed to Fair Oaks, which inspired a parent to donate shelves to the shed. We are really overwhelmed by the generosity of our community!” she said.


Helfer and her team are looking to add more schools to the program next year. “We are currently in the process of applying for an Implementation Grant from the USDA to expand the project further next year and also to work on deepening the curricular connections, especially with NGSS. We will find out next May whether or not we have gotten this competitive grant.”


The USDA grant program was a joint effort between MDUSD Curriculum & Instruction (now led by Jennifer Sachs) and Food and Nutrition Services (led by Anna Fisher, Director of FNS). You can view students in action on Twitter by visiting: