A School Garden Thrives In Challenging Times

How can a school garden survive this pandemic? It takes courageous educators, some determined parents and a lot of community support. Here’s an inner-city school garden that just keeps on giving, despite the blocks and hurdles that the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed on our schools. 

The Garden Club at Daniel A. Grout Elementary School in southeast Portland, Oregon has stayed active in keeping their school’s garden alive. Grout’s garden was chosen last year as a winner of Gardening Know How’s school sponsorship award. GKH grants just 20 awards each year, and this one was a clear winner. Grout Elementary is a Title 1 low-income school that enjoys a highly diverse student population – so diverse that there are 20 different languages spoken.

In addition to the dedicated teachers, volunteers and PTA parents in the Grout Garden Club, a local organization called Grow Portland helps keep the area’s school gardens thriving. Grout’s garden is structured as a learning experience as well as a seriously productive project mission. The reward in a normal school year comes, of course, from the young students who actively dig, plant, weed, taste and learn.

The Grout PTA hired Grow Portland to ensure high-quality, culturally responsive garden education is provided to all the K-3 students. In a normal school year, Grow Portland’s garden educator visits the school monthly and provides an opportunity for kids to connect to the natural world and healthy food.  The kids get their hands dirty with planting, weeding and hands-on observation and outdoor classroom learning. Students get tuned into plant life, pollinators and sustainable gardening, in addition to the rewards of tasting the fresh vegetables they grew.

Kids exploring the garden.

This year, with no students onsite and a reduced staff, the garden easily could have failed, but Grow Portland saw the opportunity to have the garden produce food for students in need. The typical garden work parties haven’t been an option during the pandemic. So, people who support the garden, like Erica Keeley, co-chair of the Grout Garden Club, implemented a system where Grout’s parent volunteers sign up for two-week watering duty stints. They also organized a special sign-up sheet for volunteers to help with specific cleanup tasks like weeding, compost maintenance and vegetation cutting on a staggered schedule to maintain social distancing. Collectively, they’ve made sure the garden continues to produce, in spite of COVID. 

The garden’s harvest continues to be delivered to the district’s nutrition service for the ongoing free lunch program, available to all of Portland’s children. Grout is just one of 10 schools in Portland that works with Grow Portland. Among the ten schools, over 2,000 pounds of school garden grown produce have been donated to school meal distribution sites. Students continue to visit Grout’s garden every week on their way to pick up meals.

As one of the schools in the Portland Public School District, Grout Elementary’s garden has been active for over 10 years. For the last 5 years, with the help of Grow Portland, the school’s garden has been able to truly thrive. Erica is also active in a larger Eco-School Network focused on promoting sustainable practices and raising ecological awareness in Oregon schools. This year the Eco-School Network is helping Erica and her daughter with a student-led fundraising project to improve water access for the garden. 

Donations from organizations like the Whole Kids Foundation, the PTA and Gardening Know How have helped Grout’s school gardens stay afloat. PTA members are working diligently and creatively to figure out how to coordinate socially distanced versions of events like the auction and annual native plant sale, designed to raise interest in donations to Grout’s gardening programs.  

Erica doesn’t see the program’s momentum slowing down. “My goal is to bring in fresh faces to help carry it forward.” Those fresh faces include parents of incoming little students just starting school. Currently, Grow Portland is working on creating recorded gardening sessions for online at-home learning. We hope the school garden will still be thriving many years from now, with the help of people like Erica Keeley and the Grout Garden Club.

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