Big Green’s Vision of 1000 Learning Gardens
You may have a community garden near you — a shared space for growing food. In cities, they are cherished, and rightly so. Community gardens build consensus and connect people. Now, let’s take that another step and put that garden into a school.
While Kimbal’s brother Elon is tunneling under LA to reinvent high-speed transportation, sending rockets into orbit to reboot commercial space travel for our time, and mass-marketing electric cars, Kimbal Musk has been working with food. Over the past six years or so he’s started restaurants, designed vertical gardens, and developed an ambitious plan to put a thousand gardens into schools so that kids can discover their connection to food by growing it themselves. This is the mission of Big Green.
The idea is simple: A pre-fab, modular raised-bed garden that goes in a schoolyard, with seating for thirty students who attend outdoor classes about gardening, science, nutrition, and cooking. The white polyethylene garden structure is designed to last longer than the schoolyard it occupies. Big Green includes the garden itself plus a fifteen-part lesson plan for teachers. There are learning gardens in Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Pittsburgh, with plans for more.
“When we enter a city, we enter not to built one garden, but to build a hundred gardens at a time,” Tighe Hutchins, the program director of Big Green, said on the podcast.
She works closely with school administrations and communities to make the gardens part of student life. Kyle Kuusisto, a teacher at a Memphis school, tells us what it’s like to teach physical education classes, and then transition to gardening, science, yoga and food prep classes.
When you pull a carrot stock out of the garden and you brush it off and you snap that carrot and then you taste that carrot it’s a very profound experience for students. — Kyle Kuusisto, Teacher.
Musk’s goal for Big Green is to build a thousand learning gardens across the country. Listen to the podcast to find out how he plans to do that, and also explore the impression that the gardens have on the students who are learning in them. At the start of 2018, Big Green was named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company.
Click on any play button to listen to that part of the transcript. Or click on the play button in the bar below to listen to the podcast all the way through.
Lee Schneider: It’s the “Future of Food.” I’m Lee Schneider. Let’s talk about big ambitions.
Tighe Hutchins: When we enter into a city, we actually enter not just to build one garden, we enter to build 100 gardens at a time. And that is a huge initiative not only for ourselves, it’s also a partnership with the school district.
Lee: Tighe Hutchins is national director of Big Green, Kimbal Musk’s nonprofit organization that is building Learning Gardens in underserved schools across America. They have designed and distributed what they are calling Learning Gardens, a product put together by schools and which becomes an outdoor classroom to teach kids where their food comes from. At the start of 2018, Big Green was named one of the world’s most innovative companies by “Fast Company.” Hey, Tighe, welcome to the podcast. How many gardens are you guys operating right now?
Tighe: We have 450 gardens across the country, and all of our gardens are in six cities. Those cities are Chicago, Colorado, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Memphis. And when we open a Learning Garden in a new school, we work with the school. We actually partner with them and the school district, so teachers, students, parents work with our teams that are on the ground in each of those cities to develop a plan for not only building the Learning Garden, but also for how it’s maintained. The product that we designed back in 2010 actually is going to last for over 20 years. So we really are building gardens to last.
Lee: Now, that’s interesting. Let’s talk a second about that, the life cycle. These gardens are not only built to last, but they’re also built to keep the students learning. What are you expecting the garden to continue teaching over the successive generations of students, or is it just new students coming in, a new class?
Tighe: When we designed the Learning Garden, we wanted a system that would be sustainable, similar to the lifetime of a playground. And our reasonings for doing that really were that when we started researching school gardens across the country, we saw some really great benefits to them, but we also saw a few inherent problems such as that most gardens at the time were being put in the corner of the schoolyard behind a fence. And so the actual access to that garden was very difficult for students to openly play, openly engage with, and feel like they had ownership of. So we designed our system to pull the garden to the front of the schoolyard, not put a fence around it.
And then we also have a Train the Teacher education program that is focused on training teachers of how to use the outdoor classroom and provides them a curriculum so that year in and year out they can use the garden to teach their students where their food comes from.
[Sound of students in the garden.]
Lee: Kyle Kuusisto teaches at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy in Memphis. Maxine Smith is a Big Green learning school and has been named one of America’s healthiest schools by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Hey, Kyle, welcome to the podcast. What age are the kids in your classes?
Kyle: Maxine Smith STEAM Academy is a middle school. We have grade six, seven, and eight. Our students are the ages of 11, 12, and 13.
Lee: What is a typical school day like for you?
[Sounds of students.]
Kyle: Busy and active. I teach six health and physical education classes a day. Students are kinesthetically wired to move. In most school classroom settings, students are seated and physically inactive. When they arrive in the gymnasium, they are ready to move and be active.
Lee: How do you transition then with all of that going on into the garden?
Kyle: For instance, in the garden, we bring students out there, and we’ve done meditation. We’ve done controlled breathing exercises. We’ve had students participate in yoga out in the garden as well.
Lee: And what’s their reaction? Is it like, “Hey, what is this?” or “This is great”?
Kyle: Initially, it’s, “Hey, what is this?” But the school garden is in a courtyard, so it’s really a nice ambient atmosphere. And once the students are in that atmosphere, there’s a calming influence.
Female: I liked our mustard greens. They were good.
Kyle: And it is a place where people can slow down, and relax, and focus.
Female: Did you guys like our harvest …
Student 1: Oh, yeah.
Student 2: Yeah, it was really good.
Female: Are you guys just saying that?
Student 2: No.
Lee: Are you including some science in this, and what kind of science are they learning also?
Kyle: Academically, students are learning the science of gardening and gaining a deeper sense of how ecosystems affect us as a community. They plant the seeds. They track the germination of the plants that nurture and maintaining the seasonal gardens, harvesting the gardens. The students do case studies in their environmental science class. So they look at the growth conditions of different places in the world agriculturally.
Lee: Maybe we can say they’re getting a sense of the life cycle of this, of food.
Kyle: Yes, absolutely. Planting, nurturing and maintaining, harvesting, and then finally consumption.
Lee: Yeah, let’s talk about that. You’re working on healthy snacks actually using the food. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Kyle: Initially when I started working with students besides just gardening, having a school garden but actually utilizing the harvest to prepare food, I was a little bit surprised. Initially, I thought everybody knows how to slice and dice a tomato or different types of vegetables and fruit, but that was not necessarily the case. Not everybody has the same experiences when it comes to food preparation. But with the harvest that we’ve brought from the garden, we’ve made urban fruit-infused water, urban infused decaffeinated green tea with cucumbers. We’ve done low-fat yogurt ranch dip with veggies, chickpea kale salad, lemon-Parmesan popcorn, watermelon feta cheese, and mint salad. Very interactive. It’s socially engaging, and it really engages the students in sensory learning.
Lee: I was reading one of your blogs, and you were writing about more people living in urban areas now where formerly we were in rural areas. And we rely on industry and tech to produce our food. As you put it when we talked on the phone the other day, we are eating out of boxes and cans, and it creates a separation emotionally in health and in wellness. Could you go into that a little bit for me? How did you come to feel that way first of all?
Kyle: Well, really when I think of the future of food, I think of the history of food. And 100 years ago, 90% of the world’s population lived in rural and agricultural areas. And now 100 years later, 90% of the world’s population lives in urban centers, and everybody’s in a state of rapid movement, and food is an activity that requires people to slow down and to stop. Now, people are physically disconnected, they’re emotionally disconnected, and they’re socially disconnected in many cases from food. We drive through for a fast food. We run into the market, and we buy box food and canned food and go home and prepare packaged meals. It’s not taking from the garden and preparing and sitting down.
Lee: Yeah, it really resonates with me, and it’s a big part of what this project is about, looking at that disconnect and looking at the ways to make a connection again. It really seems like these gardens and schools are a good way to do that, make the connection.
Kyle: Absolutely. As we are living in an ever-increasing urban society across the world and we live in with our food deserts where you live in these big cities and you don’t have access to fresh fruit and vegetables, having these school gardens provides many children with initial exposure to gardens and increased awareness of how gardens can affect us nutritionally, physically, emotionally, and in some cases, spiritually.
Lee: In so many ways, it seems like a small thing. Just go in a garden, grow some food. But I’ve been told by lots of people that that sticks with a child, a student, for a very long time. Once you have that first experience of growing something and preparing it yourself and eating it, something that you grew, you remember that. Is that something that you’re seeing, too?
Kyle: Oh, yes. Take for instance running into the supermarket. Many people make pit stops every day in their life. They park. They run into the grocery store, and they run through all the different aisles of boxed food, and packaged food, and canned food. And then they have a small section of produce. A lot of people are even unsure how to pick. Is this tomato, or is this mango, or is this pineapple ripe or unripe? What do I get? And then how do I prepare it? But when you pull a carrot stalk out of the garden, and you brush it off, and you snap that carrot, and then you taste that carrot, it’s a very profound experience for students. When students see kale or they see greens coming out of the garden for the first time, it’s really different than just going through the cafeteria line and asking for greens. They’re actually seeing the greens for the first time coming out of the garden. It’s really profound.
When students see kale or they see greens coming out of the garden for the first time, it’s really different than just going through the cafeteria line and asking for greens. They’re actually seeing the greens for the first time coming out of the garden. It’s really profound.
// Kyle Kuusisto
Lee: This is Tighe Hutchins again, the program director of Big Green.
Tighe: What we’ve seen is that when students have pride in what they they’ve grown, their lifelong lessons about where food comes from and how to make healthy decisions changes their preferencing and their knowledge of fruits and vegetables in the lunchroom. When they go home to talk to their parents, what they want to actually eat actually changes because they’ve learned where it comes from and they have that ownership of it.
Lee: How do you know that?
Tighe: We did a study about two years ago that showed that kids that were learning in the garden were going home and talking to their parents about food and what kind of food they wanted to eat. And that evidence plus our national authorities, ranging from the CDC to the Prevention Institute, to the USDA, all recognize the role of school gardens in improving what we call the school food culture, exactly what I was just explaining, kids’ interactions with food and how important it is that the quality and ownership of it is learned by those students at an early age.
Lee: Have you noticed…is there any pushback from the parents or anything in the family unit of people saying, “Oh, that would be too expensive,” or are parents opening this with open arms because it’s such a great idea?
Tighe: The parent involvement is a key piece to kids changing their habits. We know that. And so what we see in the garden actually is the reverse of parent pushback. It’s actually apparent acceptance from the standpoint of that everyone has to eat food and everyone has to cook food or have some type of relationship with food. And the garden is a space where everyone can actually come together and take part in that.
Lee: How did you choose the communities to work in that you’re in now?
Tighe: Currently right now, we have three or four feasibility studies happening where we look at three different pieces to our work. The first is the school district. We partner with each of our school districts to ensure that we are aligned with district initiatives and priorities and that they’re supporting our work and our program. When we enter into a city, we actually enter not just to build one garden, we enter to build 100 gardens at a time. And that is a huge initiative not only for ourselves, it’s also a partnership with the school district.
Lee: How have you been meeting that 100-garden goal per city? How has that been going?
Tighe: Right now, we have 150 gardens in Chicago. We built our first 100 gardens in Chicago in partnership with the school district as well as the City of Chicago. And that initiative went so well that the school district and the city came back and said, “Hey, we have the demand for 100 more. Would you do 200 gardens here?” So we actually have exceeded that number in Chicago and are now pushing forward to 200 gardens, which in our calculations will be the largest school garden initiative in the country in terms of saturation as well as one organization supporting that many gardens. So it’s a really big initiative for us, and we’ve really seen the district buy into it.
We built our first 100 gardens in Chicago in partnership with the school district as well as the City of Chicago. And that initiative went so well that the school district and the city came back and said, “Hey, we have the demand for 100 more. Would you do 200 gardens here?”
// Tighe Hutchins
Lee: I was going to ask you a follow-up question, what does scale mean to you? But I think you’ve just answered it. Is this part of what scale means, 100 gardens per city?
Tighe: Yes, I would agree that that is part of what scale means. Scale is a really hot word right now, and when we think about scale, we really think about providing this opportunity to as many schools as we possibly can at a quality that we thrive on. And I emphasize quality in that when we built these gardens, we really commit to that school and we commit to the long-term success of that school.
[Lee: There’s a lot of different ways that you could have gone about this, and, in fact, Musk is going about it in a lot of different ways. There are restaurants. There are indoor growing, vertical farming kind of projects out there. A lot of people are taking a run at this, and many of these things may be successful. Is the Learning Garden the best way, it is for you, but how can you justify…how do you say, “Okay, we got to do Learning Gardens. It’s the best way because…”
Tighe: We believe that our organization was, at its core, designed to accelerate the real food movement. So a Learning Garden is the best way to do this for us, because we are focused on accelerating the real food movement in schools, and increasing that knowledge and preference for fruits and vegetables is the impact that we know we can make. And so the Learning Garden is one piece of a whole lot of factors that are needed to change the food system at whole, but we know that the Learning Garden for us and our focus is how we’re going to increase that likability and preference for fruits and vegetables, which really is a key indicator for change in eating habits in the long run.
We believe that our organization was, at its core, designed to accelerate the real food movement.
// Tighe Hutchins
Lee: Are there measurable benefits to having a Learning Garden, and what kind of metrics have you guys generated, and how are you doing it?
Tighe: We know that the Learning Garden has many benefits. We see those benefits through quantitative and qualitative evaluation across all of our gardens. We know that students that learn certain topics in the garden versus in the classroom are more likely to engage in that topic when they’re out in the garden versus in the classroom.
Lee: And how are you going to help this movement spread across the whole country?
Tighe: We have our initiative to get to 1,000 gardens by 2020, and we really feel that that is this first step in a much longer vision for real food. What we see in school districts everywhere today is that food, and kids, and the cafeteria are all becoming topics that are needing to be addressed, and with school gardens being in the forefront of that, it’s allowing the conversation to happen in a faster way than it might not have happened previous to us working at the scale that we do work in.