Area Schools Dig In

Community Gardens Get Green Thumbs Up

Posted: July 26, 2014

Jonathan Vaughan (left), a volunteer with James Madison University, and Jacqueline Perez, an intern from California, harvest lettuce at the New Community Project garden in Harrisonburg last week. The organization sells produce to local restaurants as well as to some local schools and the Friendly City Food Co-Op. (Photos by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
Student-made irrigation systems line planting beds in the community garden at Keister Elementary School. Some of the produce harvested is sent home with summer school students, as well as served in school lunches.
The community garden at Keister Elementary School has been providing summer school students with fresh produces for lunches.
Lettuce grows in a New Community Project garden in Harrisonburg.

HARRISONBURG — Community gardens have become increasingly popular as more people try to connect with the places their food comes from and the ways that it’s grown.

Now, Keister Elementary summer school participants are getting that lesson firsthand as they’re Harrisonburg’s first students to have lunches featuring fresh lettuce from the school’s own garden.

Keister has had a community garden for about four years. Right now, half is for the school and the other half is for its neighbors who tend to the plots to grow food for their families.

“It’s unbelievable how it’s developed,” said Anne Lintner, the school’s principal.

Aside from eating produce from the school’s backyard, kids have learned valuable science and cooperation lessons in the garden, Lintner said.

At Linville-Edom Elementary School, kids have been able to tend to plants in their garden and do cooking projects in class with what they’ve grown.

Former principal Karen Thomsen, who is now principal of Mountain View Elementary School, said it seemed like students were more likely to eat new or “strange” foods if they knew they had played a role in growing them.

Linville-Edom’s garden yielded 40 pounds of sweet potatoes once, Thomsen said, and kids who might have ordinarily shied away from the orange food tried it excitedly.

“I don’t have scientific data, but I really do think when those sweet potatoes were served in the cafeteria, kids said, ‘We grew these,’ and they tried a bite,” Thomsen said. “I think just that ownership, that ‘I grew this. I tended to it’ … encourages students to then try that food.”

Thomsen only just moved to Mountain View this summer, so there are no plans in the works to start a garden there yet. But she said she will evaluate whether there’s a need at the school.

 “I believe in children exploring the natural world,” she said. “Knowing where their food comes from is an important concept.”

Throughout the city, public gardens foster similar senses of community and encourage healthy living.

New Community Project on the north end of Harrisonburg, for example, has several large gardens for the benefit of the community.

The organization sells produce to local restaurants, such as the Little Grill Collective, Bella Luna, the Local Chop and Grill House and Bowl of Good, as well as to some local schools and the Friendly City Food Co-Op.

Profits from the petrol-free production — deliveries are made on bicycles — are used to keep the organization running.

“Our main purpose is to give back,” said Ian Sawyer, garden coordinator. “Not profit.”

Local college students have helped make the garden project a communal endeavor.

One student is working to get an aquaponics project started, which would allow New Community Project to grow tilapia and use its waste as fertilizer.

The organization has also planted fruit trees on the Harrisonburg Salvation Army’s property off Washington Street to create a “fruit forest,” where anyone from the community would be welcome to pick and eat the fruit that’s grown there.

“We really believe everyone has a right to fresh, healthy food,” Sawyer said.

Eastern Mennonite University has a similar setup for the many gardens scattered throughout its campus.

Student interest in maintaining the gardens has been on the decline, but Will Hairston, grounds supervisor, said he hopes the university will soon hire someone to tend them and sell produce in the community.

Right now, members of the EMU community are welcome to take what’s available for free — they’re just asked to do a little weeding in exchange. Some produce is sold to the dining hall on campus, which helps fund the gardens.

There are raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, pears, Swiss chard, a variety of lettuce, a nut grove and other kinds of fruits and veggies.

It’s not used nearly as much as it could be, said Taylor Weidman, who graduated from EMU last year and is working on its grounds staff until he attends graduate school at Iowa State in the fall.

Harrisonburg residents who don’t have space for their own gardens can try to get a plot at the city’s community garden, located off Garbers Church Road near Harrisonburg High School.

It costs $30 to rent a 400-square-foot plot for a year. All gardens must be kept organic.

Scott Erickson, a recreation specialist for the city, said Harrisonburg finds just enough people to rent the plots every year, and so it doesn’t have any plans to expand. The proliferation of other gardening spots for people without their own land has lessened the demand on the city, he said.

Still, Erickson said the idea is important in a place like Harrisonburg, which doesn’t have a lot of empty land.

“A lot of people don’t have space to do that,” he said.

And even in individuals’ community garden plots, there is sharing. Erickson said most gardeners give their produce to friends and neighbors.

Keister Elementary School may expand its community garden space for the upcoming year, because the interest is high among local families, Lintner said.

It’s hard to imagine an elementary school being able to grow all of its own food on-site.

But Andrea Early, executive director for school nutrition in Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said she would like to supplement the school’s produce supply with what’s grown in its garden.

It might even inspire kids to stop spurning their veggies and eat more of the healthy food that’s put on their plates.

“Any evidence we have for success is anecdotal, but they seemed excited,” Early said of explaining to summer school kids that the lettuce in their salads came from their backyard.

Kids were able to take veggies home to their families, too.

“The teachers seemed excited,” she said, “and I can only think it’s going to be helpful in getting kids to eat more fruits and veggies.”

Contact Kassondra Cloos at 574-6290 or

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