Why Every Child Deserves a Learning Garden

The Kitchen Community's special brand of learning gardens let elementary and middle schoolers get their hands dirty with fresh vegetables. The Kitchen Community/5013c nonprofit

Thanks to The Kitchen Community, students and faculty at Shady Grove Elementary School learned an important lesson about the power of food. The lesson, the result of a learning garden installed at the East Memphis school, is that school gardens nourish communities as well young bodies.

"Shady Grove is in an older ZIP code in a very wealthy community; the kids aren't from this neighborhood and are bused in," said Lisa Ellis, The Kitchen Community's regional director in Memphis. "Before they got their garden, the school really didn’t have much of a relationship with the community around them."

The garden changed that. "Obviously, they cleaned up their school yard a lot, which the neighbors loved," Ellis said. "And then neighbors started bringing them things." One neighbor was working on his house and brought them wood. That got the math class involved in the garden, and the students did some calculations to figure out how many picnic tables they could make from the wood. Somebody else offered to build a compost bin, and an artist gave them some murals that the students painted on the school. "To see results like these that weren't on the initial plan for the garden is a truly amazing thing," said Ellis. "That's also what we want. We want these schools to get to know their neighbors and to plant with them even if they don’t have kids there."

The Kitchen Community's vision and goals

Children gathered around a raised bed in a Learning Garden
Learning gardens aim to produce long-term changes in food education. The Kitchen Community

Building communities, after all, is part of the mission of The Kitchen Community. "We say broadly we teach kids where real food actually comes from and why it's good for them, and we strengthen communities by accelerating the food movement," explained Ellis. The Kitchen Community does that by building learning gardens at scale — scale being typically 100 gardens in a community.

The Kitchen Community achieves scale by working with entire school districts. From a business perspective, scale at that level allows The Kitchen Community to efficiently manage costs. From a community perspective, it allows them to reach large numbers of students. "This approach allows us to change the food culture in an entire community as opposed to changing the culture in single schools within a district or a region," Ellis said.

"We focus our services on the schools and communities who need it most," said Melissa Chananie, development coordinator for The Kitchen Community. "Through our learning gardens and programming, The Kitchen Community has a presence in more than 340 schools across the country." Of those, she said, "Eighty-three percent are Title I and approximately 81 percent of the students are low income and/or are eligible for free and reduced lunch."

The presence The Kitchen Community is establishing across the country is fulfilling the vision of Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson, who founded the group in 2011 in Boulder, Colorado. A nonprofit, The Kitchen Community was a natural addition to their family of restaurants, The Kitchen Restaurant Group, which sources food directly from local farmers and has had a significant impact on Colorado's agricultural economy.

If Musk's name sounds familiar, there's a good reason. He's the younger brother of Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, co-founder of Tesla Motors and founder of Space X. Kimbal Musk is on the board of Tesla, SpaceX and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Kimbal Musk (right) poses over a Learning Garden in Los Angeles's Camino Nuevo Charter Academy High School
Kimbal Musk (right) poses for a photo at the learning garden in Los Angeles' Camino Nuevo Charter Academy High School. It was 's 200th garden. The Kitchen Community

But the younger Musk's passion is more down to earth than his brother's. Consequently, he decided to follow his dreams to educate communities about where "real" food (as opposed to processed food) comes from, how nutrition can change lives and about cooking. He set off on that path by enrolling in the French Culinary Institute in New York, graduating just before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Inspired by helping to feed emergency workers at the fallen towers, he moved to Boulder and, in 2004, opened The Kitchen with an emphasis on farm to table.

While he has also been a pioneer in launching other casual, urban restaurants, it's The Kitchen Community that he hopes will reach new generations of children. He's confident he'll succeed because he sees the nation’s schools as uniquely positioned to produce long-term change through food education. In addition, he believes his model will greatly speed up the adoption of school gardens, which he views as frustratingly slow.

"We've become the largest school garden organization in the world," said Musk. "By reaching hundreds of thousands of children in schools every day, we can truly accelerate the real food movement at scale. Every child in America should understand and have access to real food. Learning gardens should be the new normal on schoolyards; ever-present as playgrounds."

Since The Kitchen Community began in 2011, the nonprofit has established a presence in six cities. In addition to Memphis, the group is working with school districts in Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. Through their signature learning gardens and a school curriculum track, the goal is to reach 1,000,000 students in 1,000 schools in 10 cities by 2020.

Learning gardens and a curriculum

A Learning Garden in Camino Nuevo Charter Academy High School
Learning gardens stand high enough to accommodate a school's students and are designed to fit in the school's established landscape. The Kitchen Community

The Kitchen Community's gardens are different from the wood- or cinder block-framed gardens teachers and parent volunteers often help children build at many schools. The Kitchen Community's edible gardens are built environments that feature modular, raised beds and include boulders, seating, shade and art poles. The combination transforms "ordinary" spaces into attractive, customized outdoor classrooms conducive to learning life lessons about food, where it comes from and healthy eating.

The raised beds are made from food-grade high-density polyethylene and are molded by order to fit into pre-designed spaces. The beds stand 19 inches high to allow students to easily work with soil and plants and are accessible according to requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Recognizing that schools and communities can be widely different from each other, The Kitchen Community has a team of landscape architects who design the gardens to match and maximize the spaces available at each school. The garden beds are manufactured by Rotational Molding in Gardena, California, and are installed by independent, local landscape contractors, said Chananie.

Once the gardens are installed, the fun and the learning begins — for faculty and students. "We really follow the teach the teacher method," said Ellis, pointing out that The Kitchen Community puts a project team in place to work with the schools and their garden teams. "We are teaching the teachers, usually the first year, basic garden skills," she said. The goals of the learning gardens are to increase students' academic engagement and achievement, raise their knowledge of and interest in fresh fruits and vegetables and to strengthen the school/community relationship by creating opportunities to work together. "Once the teacher is comfortable with their role, the plants are growing and thriving and the students are harvesting them, then we can really integrate garden-based curriculum," added Ellis.

A student raises his hand in front of a Learning Garden
Learning gardens integrate a number of curriculum standards into their programs. The Kitchen Community

The Kitchen Community so far has launched one curriculum track with more planned. That track is nutrition and health and is being taught with their curriculum partner, Common Threads, an industry leader in nutrition and health education and curriculum development. A primary goal is to prevent childhood obesity. Common Threads, according to The Food Kitchen’s website, has partnered with 113 underserved schools in five cities, providing 170,600 hours of health and nutrition education to 21,607 children and adults. "Common Threads and The Kitchen Community overlap in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh," said Chananie, adding that Common Threads offers services in 22 of the schools in those three cities.

"With Common Threads, we have a great program called Garden Bites that is just starting in Memphis," said Ellis. The program features eight nutrition lessons from Common Threads and eight complementary lessons from The Kitchen Community. The lessons are available for grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8 in all the elementary and middle schools where The Kitchen Community offers services and meets National Health Education Standards, Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. "Garden Bites not only teaches kids about food, but also includes recipes and how to cook with those recipes," added Ellis. "Schools get a grocery stipend and they are able to take what they are growing, go buy a couple of extra things to complete a recipe, cook what they are growing and show the students how to do that as well."

How to bring learning gardens to your city

Sunshine lights up the morning sky over a Learning Garden
There a few things for school boards to consider before requesting a learning garden in their area. The Kitchen Community

The Kitchen Community is in the process of identifying additional cities where it believes it can make an impact. "Typically, the minimum scale for The Kitchen Community is 100 learning gardens per region," said Chananie. "However, we aim to be responsive to the needs of the community. In Chicago, we are working toward a goal of 200 gardens, a number that will put us in one-third of all schools in the district. As we continue to break ground in new cities around the country, we consider the population size and partner with each community to determine scale."

If your community is interested in partnering with The Kitchen Community to teach food education and nutrition, be aware that there are three essential requirements for potential new cities:

  1. School district support and size.
  2. A demonstrated local commitment to funding.
  3. An understanding of the community’s need for the learning garden program.

Costs to bring The Kitchen Community to a city are paid from private fundraising the group conducts nationwide and from small financial commitments required of each participating school district. The special learning garden beds are not available for purchase as stand-alone products.

Because each city has its own unique criteria, The Kitchen Community applies different criteria to different applicants. If your school district is interested in finding out if The Kitchen Community would bring its gardens and curriculum to your community, the district can apply at the organization's website.