Captain Planet Foundation plants school, community gardens during COVID-19 pandemicStudents and staff at Sagamore Hills Elementary School work to maintain the school garden sponsored by the Project Giving Gardens program of Captain Planet Foundation. Photo submitted by Captain Planet Foundation.
Decatur, GA — As the school year begins, Decatur and DeKalb schools are looking forward to utilizing gardens that were planted over the summer by Project Giving Gardens, a program of the Captain Planet Foundation.
The program was launched in 2020 in the face of school closures due to the COVID-10 pandemic, and in partnership with Atlanta Community Food Bank to help address food insecurity across DeKalb County, Decatur and metro Atlanta.
“Project Giving garden was sort of born out of a response to COVID,” said Ashley Rouse, director of Project Learning Garden and Project Giving Gardens. “Our organization has a grant program called Project Learning Gardens and it’s basically a turnkey program that we provide to schools to give them an opportunity to turn their outdoor spaces into garden-based learning classrooms. We do that by providing them with raised beds, curriculum, seeds and soil, a cooking cart and a garden exploration kit.”
Last year, Captain Planet Foundation was here from school districts that they were having trouble getting food to their families during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the food they were receiving from partnerships with the food bank was packaged.
So the foundation came up with an idea to use the gardens they were providing grant support to across metro Atlanta. They reached out to the school districts to see if they could leverage those gardens to grow food for families and thus Project Giving Gardens was born.
More than 100 gardens were planted in 2020 at schools and about 20 community gardens were planted as well. The gardens provided over 100,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. In 2021, there are 49 schools gardens and three community garden sites in metro Atlanta.
”We hired around 20 growers and were able to provide them with employment as well,” Rouse said. “So some of the growers, they were underemployed or originally had grown food for restaurants that were no longer able to purchase that produce and so we were able to help them pivot their own employment pathways by employing them to oversee the gardens.”
She added that the growers are well-experienced and are able to handle taking small spaces and turning them into high yield growing spaces.
About 15 schools in DeKalb County and some schools in Decatur participated in the program this year. Some of the gardens were located at Columbia Drive United Methodist Church and DeKalb Preparatory Academy in Decatur, Burgess-Peterson Elementary School in East Atlanta and Sagamore Hills Elementary School.
The program ends on Aug. 15, at which point the idea is schools will begin caring for the gardens and the gardens will be ready for teachers and students when they return to school. Although for some schools, that transition didn’t happen in 2020 and Captain Planet was able to extend the program through November 2020.
“A lot of the schools are excited about the opportunity to have that space [this year] where they can take the kids and the kids could perhaps take their mask off and be able to breathe the fresh air and have a different learning space,” Rouse said.
The program typically runs from the time school gets out for the summer until about the second week of school in the fall so there’s time for teachers to get settled and the growers to prepare the gardens. By the time school starts, the growers have typically planted, weeded and gotten the garden to a point where the teachers aren’t starting from scratch, Rouse said.
“We also provide them with a few seed packets that they are able to plant with their students once the summer crops are done for the fall,” she added. “It’s really on the schools to decide if they want to maintain that program throughout the school year or if they just want to turn their gardens back into just a learning space for students.”
Rouse said it has been fun to see what all the schools can grow.
“It’s interesting to see this year some of the schools getting a little bit competitive about how much they’re able to grow,” Rouse said. “But it’s all in good fun and faith for the community and love for the community because I think at the heart of it, the growers that are supporting the gardens, they get to see the benefit of taking the produce and dropping it off at the pantry sites where sometimes they’re able to make a connection with some of the pantry-goers.”
This year, Captain Planet Foundation has been more intentional when it came to selecting locations for school gardens. Rouse said the staff looked at the poverty map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and overlaid the schools that signed up with areas with food access issues.
“Last year, we created the program more so on the fly, whereas this year I was intentional about selecting where the schools would be located versus like where there were high pockets of areas without grocery stores or limited food access,” Rouse said.
“With each school that we have and the growers that are working those schools, some schools keep the food on site and it goes directly back to the students and families and some of them we distribute the food at the closest pantry site in the community,” she added.
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