Growing Food Growing Health Student Gardens

Growing Food Growing Health is a project of the Community Mercantile Education Foundation (CMEF) which is dedicated to improving the health of youth by creating school gardens that act as living classrooms, inspiring hands-on education, and connecting students to locally-grown fruits and vegetables to be enjoyed in their school cafeterias. Now in it's eighth season, GFGH tends to over 14,000 square feet of gardens on school grounds at West Middle School, Hillcrest Elementary and Sunset Hills Elementary.

West Gardens Project Grows and Grows

When the West Middle School Garden Project was first conceived in 2009 we could not have imagined how powerfully this garden would capture the support and attention of our community. The project, appropriately named “Growing Food, Growing West”, became a very visible symbol of what was possible--with school gardens, cafeteria food, youth employment, changing how young people relate to the foods they eat, teaching science, and community partnerships. The garden was just bursting with possibilities.

Relationships Provide Fertile Soil

The West Garden Project was planted in the very fertile soil of relationships. Non-profit Community Mercantile Education Foundation (CMEF) and sister organization The Merc Co+op, and Mainstreet Credit Union are the lead organizations of the project.  Located in a largely residential neighborhood, The Merc Co+op is just two short blocks from West Middle School, and two neighboring elementary schools, Hillcrest and Sunset Hill.

With a grant of $12,000 from the local Live Well Lawrence initiative and a $6,000 commitment from The Merc Co+op we were on our way to building our garden. Live Well Lawrence funding was used to hire a professional grower to act as garden coordinator. Funds also helped with loads of compost, plants, mulch, an irrigation system, and a myriad of garden and farmers market needs. Funding from the co-op was used to hire youth to work in the garden and establish and run an on-site, twice weekly summer farmers market.

Generating Support and Excitement for Our Work

Before ground was even broken in the spring of 2010 we were able to generate excitement and support for the project by establishing a “Giving Garden” inside The Merc Co+op. We covered our windows with little “seed packets” each containing the name of a tool or supply we needed for the West Garden. Customers would choose a seed packet, sign their name on it as a commitment that they would purchase the tool, and then deliver it to the store. We received all we needed to begin our work.
After we collected our tools we realized we needed a place on site to store them. Mainstreet Credit Union, which has a branch office inside the co-op, stepped up and paid for a large garden shed that we use to house all of our supplies. Home Depot donated and installed a split rail cedar fence and arbor that has given our garden a real feeling of permanence. Stone was donated for walkways and borders, an organic grower grew many of our plant starts, and volunteers built a garden table and benches.

Project Provides Bounty

During the spring, summer, and fall we split the students into weekly crews working two-hour shifts early in the morning in summer and after school in spring and fall. Students take turns planting, watering, weeding, harvesting and prepping produce to sell to The Merc Co+op or West cafeteria. 100% of money earned selling produce goes directly back in to the project. In its first year the garden produced more than a half-ton of produce, with over 280 pounds of this going directly into the cafeteria for all West students to enjoy. By the end of our seventh season, in 2016, total garden harvest has exceeded 14,000 lbs! Our garden size has doubled since 2010, a small orchard and small fruits have also been added. Teaching gardens have been built at two neighboring elementary schools, Hillcrest Elementary and Sunset Hill Elementary, with West Middle School students acting as mentors at these gardens. We have planted an edible garden in front of The Merc Co+op that will help bring attention to our combined projects, now renamed “Growing Food, Growing Health” to better encompass our expanding efforts.
Most importantly, the West garden has helped build excitement and support for farm-to-school efforts in our community. It has been a shining example of what’s possible when communities, schools, and businesses work together to create change.