Growing gardens, feeding a community

4th grade students guide one another through each step of the planting process at their desks, while teacher Elizabeth Lovelace observes.

Back during the wet winter months of 2020, the 4th Graders of Frank Wagner Elementary each planted a few calendula seeds into a cup. While carefully guiding each other through the steps as practice for upcoming garden visits with Kindergartners at their school, they discussed potential challenges they might face and reflected on what it meant to be a mentor to younger students. “I’ll teach my buddy not to rush things too quickly,” one leader shared with the group. Along with flower seeds, the fourth graders planted intentions and wishes for the springtime: “I planted my seed with kindness, and I’ll practice kindness with my Kindergarten buddy,” one student said; “I planted a seed of peace to the world!” exclaimed another.

Garden buddies stand in a circle with teachers and Oxbow farmers during their first visit to the garden together.

The wintery wishes for the season’s first seeds kicked off the new “Garden Buddies” program, part of an ongoing partnership between Oxbow and the Monroe elementary school community. Since 2016, Oxbow has collaborated with Frank Wagner Elementary staff, students, families, and neighbors to build a beautiful and bountiful garden, developing hands-on learning experiences for students, and sharing ideas with teachers for how to bring their classes outdoors.

During their first Garden Buddies meet-up, Kindergartners and 4th graders proudly sang “Cada Semilla,” a song about planting a seed with kindness and love! 

It has been absolutely wonder-full getting to know students and their families, and an honor to work with superstar teachers, including Elizabeth Lovelace (pictured above). Señora Lovelace, as she’s known around the school, is a 4th grade dual-language teacher who stepped up as the school’s Garden Coordinator, going above and beyond to help the space truly flourish. A passionate gardener and caring teacher, Sra. Lovelace started an after-school Outdoor Classroom Caretakers Club. She currently coordinates the student Green Team; this year the Green Team worked to reduce cafeteria food waste through a Food Rescue program, collecting unopened extra lunch items before they are thrown in the trash.

Feeding families and building a community of gardeners

A view from the garden, looking up to the empty classrooms above. The words “Miss U” are spelled out in one of the windows.

As springtime arrived, the 4th graders watched their little calendula seeds sprout and grow in the classroom. But just as the flowers were ready to be transplanted out in the garden, the world shifted dramatically and COVID-19 precautions closed schools and businesses throughout the region. The switch to remote learning has been challenging not only for teachers, but also for families–many of whom were, and still are, struggling to get by. In line with public schools across the nation, Monroe School District and their partners at Chartwells Dining Services started hosting free food and school supply pickups at Frank Wagner and four other elementary schools to support children throughout the area.

Nearly 70% of Frank Wagner students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast through their school, based on family income. Summer and weekend meal programs are hosted on site by Chartwells and weekend food backpacks are packed by the Sky Valley Food Bank to support families when schools are closed. However, with take-home meals packed in advance and limited cold storage capacity, it is difficult to share fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sra. Lovelace reflected on the challenges:

“The Green Team was working on the cafeteria Food Rescue program when COVID-19 came to town. The need to rescue food and to feed hungry families in our community intensified as people were instructed to “stay home” for safety. I quickly realized the need to take what I had been doing in the classroom with regard to health, nutrition AND science, all the way home!”

Oxbow considered what we could offer our friends at Frank Wagner. With spring field trips and most summer camps cancelled, it became clear that refocusing our efforts to maximize food production in the Kids’ Farm field could amplify donations to community members in need. Starting in April of 2020, Oxbow began sharing weekly spring harvests with those stopping by the school during the free lunch distribution hours. We also began growing extra veggie seedlings and created bilingual care instructions and activities to help students continue the garden-based learning at home AND grow food for their family through the coming months. The “Mini Garden” project was born!

The Mini Garden project developed as a collaboration between Oxbow Farmers and Sra. Lovelace, who set up her own greenhouse (now known as “GrannE’s Garden”) to grow hundreds more seedlings at her home. A compost pickup was organized with Peace Lutheran Church, who hosted a pile in their parking lot across from the school.

Participating families have received about 40 different varieties of plants, including golden beets, zucchini, peas and beans, lettuce, strawberries, onions, tomatoes, a native flower to support pollinator habitat, and much more. Together, we ended up sharing thousands of seedlings with over 100 families and distributed over 600 bags of farm-fresh produce through the spring season!

The Huerto Family converted their whole backyard into a garden!

One family decided to convert their entire backyard to a veggie garden after the children convinced their parents it would be a better use of their space! Another family, who have enjoyed Oxbow Summer Camps in years past, have been growing enough food to donate some produce back to the food bank, sharing their bounty with neighbors in need!

Teachers and staff at the school have been invited to participate as well. Sra. Claudia Gerken stands proudly beside her beautiful new raised garden bed!

These dedicated gardeners have been creative in their methods, some planting food in buckets and pots on small balconies, while others have expanded existing gardens or converted lawn into new growing space. Quite a few of the teachers and staff also brought home starts, with one staff member remarking that “we have gone from a school with a garden to a school that gardens.” While this springtime certainly didn’t go as planned and we have all been staying home to stay healthy, we continue to grow together this season!

The work continues!

Despite the disappointment of not being able to lead Field Trips and Summer Camp programs this summer, the Oxbow Education team has been thrilled to redirect their efforts toward maximizing food production to donate to our community. Oxbow’s greater production farm continues to support the effort as well, through existing partnerships with Hopelink, Jewish Family Services, and other local organizations focused on hunger relief.

“I am so excited for all the veggies! I haven’t eaten a fresh salad since last week’s bag, which disappeared quick!” – Parent picking up Oxbow produce at Frank Wagner Elementary

The trust and relationships built with Frank Wagner and the Monroe community over the past few years undoubtedly support our ability to participate in this work. We hope that collaborative efforts and further relationship building (and demonstrated enthusiasm for veggies!) will help us continue to pursue farm-to-school efforts, like having Oxbow produce in the lunchroom in the future.

Projects with Frank Wagner Elementary have been made possible through EPA grant #01J26201 and #01J6590. Additional support for this project is provided through private donations made by Oxbow’s generous supporters. For questions about the project, please contact us.