Shelters & Shade

Back to the Garden
The Kitchen Community in Memphis, Tenn., & Other Locations

By Dave Ramont

The Kitchen Community is on a noble mission to help kids not only learn the value of nutritious foods, but also to grow, harvest, prepare and eat them. The nonprofit organization, which was started in Boulder, Colo., strives to accomplish this by building Learning Gardens at low-income schools. Through these gardens, they hope that students will develop a lasting appreciation and desire for fresh fruits and vegetables, while also increasing their academic engagement and achievement.

Tighe Hutchins, national director for The Kitchen Community, explained that they're not just teaching kids how to garden. "We're helping students dig into their education, thrive with nutritious foods and healthy habits, and become active participants in strengthening their communities."

Currently, they're reaching students in underserved schools across six regions including Denver, Chicago, Memphis, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis—engaging 200,000 students with nearly 400 gardens. Their goal is to install 1,000 Learning Gardens across 10 regions by the end of 2020.

The Kitchen Community builds Learning Gardens at scale, typically about 100 gardens in a region, allowing for more efficient management of costs and helping to change the food culture in entire communities, particularly where "real," non-processed foods are harder to come by. Each district is asked to offer a small financial commitment, with private fundraising covering the majority of costs. "The Kitchen Community works with private donors, family foundations, granting organizations and corporate sponsors in each community to help fundraise for Learning Gardens in underserved schools," Hutchins said.

Every Learning Garden is uniquely designed to fit the look and feel of that particular schoolyard. Construction typically takes three to five days, and usually includes raised beds, benches, boulders, a shade structure covering seating where children are taught gardening skills, and art poles. The modular, raised beds are made from food-grade, high-density polyethylene and are molded to fit into the pre-designed spaces. The ADA-compliant beds stand 19 inches high, allowing students to easily work with the garden plants. Hutchins said they employ project managers in each district who are responsible for the design and construction management of the space. "Many of our project managers are full-time landscape architects who custom-design each Learning Garden classroom for every schoolyard. It's a powerful differentiator and it enables our team to build beautiful outdoor spaces for each school."

Once the Learning Garden is built, the Kitchen Community provides schools with ongoing support to help them fully benefit from the garden, or outdoor classroom. Hutchins explained how they leverage a "teach the teachers" model, empowering teachers to learn how to plant, grow and harvest fruits and veggies, and pass that along to their students. "We focus on two initiatives with our train-the-teacher model: Garden Based Education and Edible Gardening. Our full-time garden educators host regular teacher workshops for school districts that provide the teachers with professional development, tools and networking opportunities." Additionally, since the Kitchen Community is dedicated to local gardening and student nutrition in general, their workshops may be open to the larger garden community if space is available.

Students are educated on basic planting and growing processes, including soil nutrition, watering, weeding, pests and mulching. At harvest time, they not only learn about collecting produce, but also preparing fresh food and generally maintaining healthy eating habits.

The Kitchen Community works with national partners to develop content for their Education Pathway. "We currently offer two curriculums," Hutchins said. "Our Garden Bites curriculum is focused on kindergarten through eighth grade education around health and nutrition. We also have a high school curriculum called Real Food Lab where students focus on building a business plan using the Learning Garden."

At the Prosser Career Academy in Chicago, students sell their garden's produce to local restaurants and businesses. They raised more than $4,000 for participating local schools in the program's first year.

The Kitchen Community offers schools Food Safety Certification so that they can utilize the produce in their cafeterias, though they're allowed to use the produce however they choose. "Schools will also sell the produce to their families at a farm stand or send it home with the students with a recipe for their parents to cook at home," Hutchins said.

When Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk founded The Kitchen Community in 2011, they hoped to educate communities about where "real" food comes from, and they felt that schools were the ideal place to inspire long-term change when it came to attitudes about nutrition. Musk is the younger brother of Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and SpaceX, and co-founder of Tesla motors. The younger Musk sits on the boards of Tesla, SpaceX and Chipotle Mexican Grill. He's truly passionate about the school food movement, believing that Learning Gardens in schoolyards should be just as common as playgrounds.

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