Urban Harvest: Growing Houston's Classrooms
Location: Houston, Texas
Contact: Kara Masharani; 713.880.5540 ext. 17; firstname.lastname@example.org
For some people, one garden is enough to manage. For Urban Harvest, a Houston-based gardening group, 60 gardens does not seem to be enough. In addition to 60 conventional community gardens, this Texas group has helped start over 75 school gardens in the Houston metro area, and provides continued support to these gardens through expert advice, training, and hands-on assistance.
Gardeners in the warmest parts of the humid Sun Belt do not face the same challenges that gardeners in northern climates face. There are different problems such as rampant perennial weeds, heat extremes, more insects and diseases and low organic matter, but frost is rarely an issue, and they do not have to cope with protecting plants during snow-filled winters. Besides the obvious advantages of sunshine and a year-round harvest, the southern climate is also more hospitable to a certain type of garden - the school garden, or what is often called the outdoor classroom. In southern states, such as Texas, Florida, and Southern California, the school year coincides with the peak gardening months, while in northern states the opposite is true. In Houston, Texas, a group named Urban Harvest has taken advantage of the growing season to successfully promote and assist outdoor classrooms in the Houston metro area. To date, the group has helped start over 135 community and school gardens, and is often looked to as a leader in school garden development and implementation.
History of Urban Harvest
In the late 1980s, a non-profit group called the Interfaith Hunger Coalition began promoting gardening and urban agriculture as a way to battle community health and nutrition issues in Houston. Gardening and nutrition were seen as critical issues to many local activists, and in 1994 Urban Harvest was formed from the Interfaith Hunger Coalition in order to better address these issues. Other sustainable gardening advocates such as organic landscapers and permaculture practitioners joined as well. The group became the Houston area's first independent community gardening association; they saw urban gardening as a way to address a mission which included using gardens, orchards, farms and landscapes to "educate, strengthen community spirit, create therapeutic environments and provide food and income" for Houston area residents.
Urban Harvest helped form their first school gardens in 1995, and saw these gardens as a way to help the area cope with many challenges school children face, such as access to healthy food. Houston is the nation's fourth largest city so it has a lot of everything, including low-income residents. The vast majority of elementary, middle, and high school kids are on school lunch programs, and much of the population struggles with obesity and obesity-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. School gardens provide a great opportunity to teach local youth and the surrounding community about nutrition-related issues while also helping to improve people's eating choices. They also provide an opportunity to empower low income parents to participate in schooling and to advocate for nature. However, schools are mainly designed to teach curriculum and are held accountable for that, so the gardens, orchards and accompanying habitats are all called "outdoor classrooms", and their main duty is to help teachers teach.
At the start they had very little help or support from the city government and the school board, but today, with over 75 school garden successes, Urban Harvest has gained recognition both locally and nationally for the work they do. In recent years, the school district has paid Urban Harvest to provide regular after-school instruction in 13 schools and the city parks department is initiating similar activities.
Urban Harvest Today
Today Urban Harvest is recognized as Metro Houston's leading resource for people who need help starting or maintaining a school garden. In spring 2007, they had two fulltime staff, three part time staff and 14 contract staff spending their time traveling throughout Houston, providing assistance to new and existing school gardens. This form of outreach means that the group functions almost like a university extension service - providing expertise, materials, and knowledge usually free of charge. They do not impose their ideas on the gardeners they help, which is part of the group's success: "We lead by advice, not by enforcing standards" says Urban Harvest director Dr. Bob Randall, "you have to pay attention to what those people starting the garden want to get done–you have to be able to suppress at least temporarily what you as an organization would like to see happen." The group helps teachers recognize the benefits of gardening, and assists them in working gardening into their curriculum in a way that will help them meet Education Standards. As Randall says, "we help them figure out how gardening can line up with the educational goals a school has for itself." Bringing students into the garden to study topics like biology, botany, mathematics, or even the arts, helps teachers fulfill education requirements, while the environment of the garden naturally teaches lessons about food systems, cooperation, habitat restoration, team building, and nutrition.
While Urban Harvest helps support school gardens, the teachers, students, and parents do the gardening work at the schools. Parents often get involved in the school gardens, and form gardening clubs to help keep gardens in good shape. Urban Harvest provides troubleshooting advice about summer break maintenance, and sometimes finds volunteers to help parents and teachers clean the gardens before the start of the next school year.
As a part of their programming, Urban Harvest teaches over 75 classes a year to teachers, students, and community members on topics related to gardening, nutrition, and even business management. Teachers and community gardeners can take many of the classes free of charge. Urban Harvest also provides the community with a number of other resources, including access to the Leigh Ann Jones Garden Library, where community members can check out books on gardening techniques and processes. They teach gardening skills at the Urban Harvest Teaching Garden and through a series of after school programs. They also publish a series of articles on gardening topics, which can be accessed free of charge on their website (http://www.urbanharvest.org/advice), as well as providing an online educational movie on the benefits of school gardening (http://www.urbanharvest.org/programs/schoolyouth). Other Urban Harvest programs such as The Bayou City Farmers' Market, the Organic Horticultural Education Business Alliance and the Annual Fruit Tree Sale help link schools and school children to resources and careers.