Orca Program at Columbia School - Seattle, WA
At first blush, adopting a re-skinned (with a new outer covering) greenhouse may not seem propitious. For the public alternative Orca Program at Columbia School, however, it has enhanced the appearance of a run-down Seattle neighborhood. With start-up money from the Department of Neighborhoods, technical support from the American Community Garden Association, ongoing training from Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, donations from local businesses, hours of volunteer labor, and money to build composting and vermiculture bins from the Solid Waste Department, the Orca Program at Columbia School has proven that it really does take a village to raise a food garden.
A few years ago, Anza Muenchow assumed stewardship of the PTA-initiated greenhouse and garden project. Right off she created a steering committee made up of parents, staff, and community horticulturists. "Running the greenhouse and garden is a big job," says Anza. "I wanted to ensure that it would be carried on--with or without me." Indeed, this year she will volunteer as a steering committee member and hand over daily operation of the greenhouse and garden to two other volunteers, a Master Gardener and a member of the community gardening association, Seattle Tilth.
The Relationship of Food and Community
This grant-based project, with its hard-earned jumble of community involvement, serves a threefold purpose: to provide food for the community, a beautiful oasis for the neighborhood, and an outdoor classroom for students. "We reinforce important life skills in the garden," says Anza, "such as how to grow food, observe, think long-term, and cooperate."
The cycle begins in the greenhouse with seed germination and plant propagation. Kids then transplant plugs into the gardens, tend them, and bring the harvest home, literally. The students also donate produce and vegetable seedlings to local food banks.
They also raise some major bucks. They pocketed a stunning $4,000 from this year's plant sale, which will provide for the coming year's operating expenses. The Wednesday afternoon Columbia Farm Market offers another business opportunity. From their school booth, the kids sell greenhouse-grown flower and vegetable seedlings and compare notes with local farmers. Farm Market shoppers offer a dollar "donation" to park in the school lot, which adds up to money for a new shovel, another pack of tomato seeds, or a new heat mat for the greenhouse.
Finding Support from Within
"Principals are key people in any school-based project," says Anza. She advises project supporters to "communicate, communicate, communicate." "Appreciate." "Give credit." The parking lot donation, for example, was the brainstorm of the new principal, who has contributed other creative ideas. Through weekly newsletters and her attendance at PTA meetings, Anza also informs and involves parents and caregivers, welcoming their ideas into the mix.
With administrative and teacher support, Anza and the PTA have developed a primarily volunteer-run greenhouse and garden curriculum. A PTA-placed parent in every classroom coordinates seasonal gardening activities with the teacher. One afternoon per week, the parent takes five children at a time into the greenhouse for an intimate 20-minute session on everything from weeding to worm composting. "We like to emphasize cycles," says Anza; "seasonal cycles, the life cycles of insects, the decomposition of organic matter into nutrient-rich compost, and the cycle of a seed to a plant to a seed again." As with most communities, what goes around tends to come around.
Finally, the half-time art teacher routinely brings the kids into the greenhouse and garden for a breath of fresh air and a splash of color.
Last spring, kids came out into the garden at lunchtime and munched on the abundant pea crop; they brought the rest of the harvest home. With 40 percent of the children receiving free lunch, having fresh organic produce in their knapsacks sends strong signs of life from a patch of ground that was once bare asphalt.