The tip-off to the presence of some unwanted visitors at Denver’s Fairview Elementary School were the holes in the cabbage leaves.
Immediately, Judy Elliott had her work crew on their knees, combing through the other plants in the school garden.
“The first thing we do is find the caterpillars,” said Elliott, education and community empowerment coordinator for Denver Urban Gardens. “And if we find caterpillar eggs, what do we do? Do we use pesticides?”
“No!” came the answering chorus of young voices.
“We just brush the eggs off,” said one young gardener.
“We don’t ever use pesticides,” explained 15-year-old Rider Spangler, a volunteer who rides the bus all the way from Green Valley Ranch, on the other side of town, just to work in the Fairview garden. “So you don’t have to worry about eating stuff right out of the garden.”
And to illustrate his point, he bit into a newly-picked snap pea.
Throughout the summer, this garden – lovingly planted, tilled and harvested by Fairview students, their parents and some other volunteers – will help feed the neighborhood, providing families with fresh produce they might otherwise struggle to obtain.
Fairview, in Denver’s impoverished Sun Valley neighborhood, is in a so-called “food desert.” The nearest grocery store with a well-stocked fresh produce section is a mile and a half away, and cars are a luxury many in this part of town simply cannot afford.
“It takes an hour to get there by bus, and you have to change buses twice,” said Elliott. “And then you’re very limited in what you can carry. A lot of the Somali families in the neighborhood have five to 10 children, so imagine carrying bags of groceries with one or two little ones in tow.”
The Fairview garden is one of 35 school-based gardens in Denver Public Schools this summer, and one of four on the west side of town to host summer-long youth farmers markets. They’re the joint projects of a collaboration among DPS, Denver Urban Gardens and Slow Food Denver.
A grant from the Colorado Health Foundation and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment helps fund the Fairview garden, allowing organizers to pay the young farmers a small stipend – between $3 and $4 an hour – for their work.
More than two dozen Fairview students applied for the 10 available summer garden jobs, which require several hours of garden labor two mornings a week, plus a two-hour shift at the farmers market each Sunday.
“The garden has gotten more and more popular,” said Fairview fifth-grade teacher Don Diehl, who has been coordinating the school’s gardening and nutrition classes for 10 years. “Now it’s a cool thing to do in the neighborhood, though it didn’t used to be. Of the 10 (students) we selected this year, only one had worked with us before.
“It’s a competitive job,” he said. “We did interviews and they wrote essays about why they wanted to do it. What stood out about the ones we selected is their excitement about the chance to do something to give back to their community.”
Jacob Bustos, 13, regularly comes to work in the garden even though he’s not paid to do so.
“I just wanted to learn how to garden,” he said. “I want to start one for my mom at our house.
“Now that I’ve been doing this awhile, I know how to plant and harvest,” he added. “I even checked out some books to read about it.”
Jacob says his work in the garden and the cooking and nutrition classes he’s taken at Fairview have changed his eating habits.
“I’m eating a lot more peas now,” he said. “And I’m eating salads with a lot of vegetables in them. I would rather eat stuff that’s fresh, right out of the garden.”
Twelve-year-old Rudy Ornelas had never tasted spinach before sampling it in a cooking and nutrition class at school. He liked it. He also liked the red pepper.
“Now I want to learn how to plant and take care of all kinds of vegetables,” he said.
Rudy’s been given special responsibility for the basil and celery patches at the Fairview garden. It’s a job he takes seriously.
“Celery is a bog plant,” he explained, “so it loves water.”
Maureen Hearty, DUG education facilitator, said the new gardeners take quickly to their tasks.
“You see a lot of growth in these kids, even in just a single growing season,” she said. “Their knowledge of food and their pride in their garden keep growing.”
Around the city, urban youngsters are getting their hands dirty this summer as they learn about gardening in school gardens. Slow Food Denver has partnered with DPS food services for about 20 of the school-based gardens to supply food for their own school cafeterias come fall.
“We’re calling it ‘Garden-to-School’ and there will be a weekly harvest of salad-ready vegetables that the district food staff can use,” said Andy Nowak, director of Slow Food Denver. “The district has bought 85 salad bars, mostly for use in elementary schools, and we’re excited to work with them on that.
“The garden-to-cafeteria concept is relatively new,” he said. “Boulder has been doing it on a small scale with a couple of schools, but there’s nothing as formal as this on this scale.”
Come September, Slow Food and Eat Denver, a coalition of independent restaurants in the city, will partner to bring in chefs to the schools that have gardens. Their goal will be to teach the youngsters and their families fun and delicious ways to prepare the fresh produce they’re growing.
Meanwhile, DPS is also pursuing a pilot program to create “school farms” at two schools, Bradley and McGlone elementaries. Those pilot programs involve creating real working farms on larger parcels, tended by adult farmers, with the produce going to farmers markets and school cafeterias.
“It’s a pilot that could be expanded to 15 sites over 20 acres, which could produce a large amount of food,” Nowak said.
This is all part of DPS’ stated commitment to get away from serving processed foods, which typically are much higher in sodium than fresh products, and to serve healthier, low-fat, more nutritious meals to students.
This week, 110 DPS food service personnel begin a three-week scratch cooking boot camp, in which they’ll study ways to offer enticing salad bars; cook their own soups, sauces, chilis and stews; and learn about scratch baking.
By fall, 29 of the district’s schools will be concentrating on scratch cooking, and officials say they hope all the district cafeterias will be offering primarily from-scratch offerings within three years.
“There’s a lot of momentum behind this,” said Nowak. “DPS has seen the great possibilities that exist in gardens and school cafeterias. Once they got going, they really started rolling on this. I’m amazed. I’m sometimes struggling just to keep up with all they’re doing.”
Rebecca Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.