SCHOOL GARDENS: Multiple functions and multiple outcomes


School garden programmes have been a popular development intervention for many decades. The objectives for school gardens have, however, differed greatly, determined by the purpose, the targeted audiences, and the proponent. In the developing world, these have included teaching improved farming skills, supporting community food production, raising funds, and demonstrating exemplary agricultural practices to the communities surrounding the schools. In the industrialized world (and increasingly in the global South), school gardens have served a broader education function, helping children understand science, nature, and the environment. Increasingly a case is also made for reconnecting rapidly urbanizing school communities with the realities of rural areas, local food culture, local food biodiversity, and farm tourism. There is now a wider recognition of the role of school gardens in environmental and nature education, in local food biodiversity and conservation, food and ecoliteracy, diets, nutrition and health, and agricultural education. The current concerns about environmental degradation and the disconnect of young people with nature and agriculture have resulted in school gardens receiving unprecedented attention.

However, with donors and government, the nutrition agenda is also driving the current interest in supporting school garden programmes. This is a major focus of many of the chapters and case studies in this book, highlighting the importance of school gardens as a tool for improving food and nutrition education - especially through the better incorporation of local agrobiodiversity and enhanced awareness of its nutritional value - to improve healthy eating habits and dietary diversity. Governments are embarrassed and challenged by the growing prevalence of malnutrition among school-aged children. Evidence

from nutrition surveys has drawn attention to school-aged malnutrition. In the global South, funding for school nutrition activities including gardens and associated feeding programmes is sourced from health and nutrition sectors resulting in mainstreaming and institutionalization efforts and policy support. In an increasing number of countries, frameworks are being developed to support universal school feeding programmes. This wider attention to the nutrition agenda in schools, a parallel effort to find ways to leverage the nutrition contributions of agriculture through what is now referred to as nutrition-sensitive agriculture, with the engagement of a diverse range of sectors and players (not just agriculture), has brought school gardens back to the development agenda. The increasing appreciation of the wider multiple benefits and multi-functionality of school gardens is indeed the driver of this growing interest in school gardens, irrespective of geography (Figure 1.1).

This chapter provides a brief history of school gardens and an overview of their multiple benefits. These benefits include: a better understanding of the agriculture and nutrition sectors; enhancement of farming and livelihood skills; behavioural and attitudinal changes towards food, including a wider awareness of healthy eating and diets; the conservation of agrobiodiversity; understanding climate change impacts on agriculture and food production; enhancing academic skills and performance; empowerment of girls and women; reconnecting indigenous children with their foods and culture; and using these as a potential space to address mental health and well-being in schoolchildren. The chapter concludes with the identification of some key issues for the future of school gardens and a brief outline of the structure of the book including an overview of the chapters and case studies.

The multiple benefits of school gardens

FIGURE 1.1 The multiple benefits of school gardens.

School gardens: a short history

In the last century, in Europe and the United States, school gardens have featured as a hunger intervention. Some of the earliest gardening efforts (George Putnam School in Massachusetts) remain useful reminders of the importance of school gardens and the role they played in hunger mitigation (e.g. the Victory Gardens in the two World Wars and the introduction of‘U.S. Garden Armies’ by the Federal Bureau of Education). By the end of 1906, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that there were 75,000 school gardens mostly referred to as relief gardening. School gardens were considered a national phenomenon, but they were also considered a part of U.S. culture from the 1890s to 1920s (Wills, 2019). In the 1970s the growing environmental movement helped revive interest in school gardens, resulting in another period of intense growth in the 1990s (Hayden-Smith, 2015). In recent years, the FoodCorps” movement has grown, supporting school and community garden efforts. Learning about gardening, the environment, nature, and sustainable diets characterizes current school gardening efforts in Europe, Australia, and the United States.

In the developing world, in the mid-sixties and seventies, school gardens have featured primarily as food security interventions which help encourage children to appreciate agriculture and to learn how food is produced. School gardens are largely featured as part of efforts to address hunger and malnutrition among schoolchildren and occasionally to supplement school feeding programmes. Linking school gardens with school feeding and nutrition education is emerging as a new area to converge the efforts of the agriculture, health, and nutrition sectors in school platforms. Linking schools with communities has brought in an added interest in home gardens and their role in supporting household nutrition. The role of school gardens in behavioural modification in relation to healthy food, sustainable diets, and environmental stewardship is also receiving prominent attention. In the global South, education for vocational agricultural training or agricultural education has been an important focus for school gardens. Some have been used for food production, often with the intention that they might help to augment the ingredient requirements of school meal programmes. In some cases such initiatives have been unsustainable because of the lack of resources, motivation, or expertise, though some countries, such as Costa Rica, with suitable policies and enabling environments are the exception (FAO, 2010). In many instances, though, when the donor support has stopped, so too has the school garden programme. In the Philippines, the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture have allocated funds to schools to support both gardens and feeding programmes: policy and recent legislation have helped improve the sustainability of such programmes.

School garden programmes in the global South have sometimes had a troubled past often due to poor clarity on the objectives and relevance of school garden interventions to the wider educational role of schools and often further complicated by a lack of vision and creativity, resulting in the perception of school gardens as drudgery and efforts to integrate them into schools as ‘ruralisation’ of the curriculum (FAO, 2010). This has often led to negative perceptions of school gardens, such as that school garden work can be used as a form of punishment; that school garden activities do not help to pass exams; that gardening is dirty and tiring work; that our children are being exploited; and that the food from school gardens, especially if promoting indigenous crops, was the food of the poor, only eaten in hard times (FAO, 2010). There is also a need to consider the burden school teachers already have with school-based activities. Well-intentioned ideas about promoting school gardens and linking schools with communities and homes have to factor in the increased commitments of human and financial resources. The good intentions of ‘outsiders’ to link schools with a host of other activities (income generation, community outreach, home gardens of parents, reforestation, and small livestock) must be screened carefully to ensure that teachers and students are not unduly burdened. For community outreach efforts the already burdened teachers should be provided additional human and financial resources, otherwise once again sustainability and quality are sacrificed. More individuals and organizations are realizing the huge potential of school gardens to transform how children learn and understand the world in which they live and act accordingly. There is an increased appreciation that school gardens can be suitable learning spaces to address the complexity of challenges we face by promoting interdisciplinary and holistic approaches. That school gardens not only serve the pupils but also the wider community and society itself by realizing the multiple benefits they can deliver (Figure 1.1).

The multiple benefits of school gardens

Development of agricultural and livelihood skills including knowledge of sustainable food systems

Traditionally school gardens have played an important role, and continue to do so, in teaching agricultural and horticultural skills and associated learning and capacity building. This often covers the full spectrum of the growing cycle from the design of the garden, selection of planting material and agricultural biodiversity, growing and management through harvesting, and preparation for consumption as well as processing for longer-term storage (Figure 1.2). Such activities allow children to learn how to grow and maintain a variety of foods, not just crops and plants but sometimes to raise small livestock and even fish (FAO, 2010). Such learning often also includes enhancing knowledge and skills for the sustainable management of natural resources especially soils (Box 1.1) and water, including recycling or circular economy approaches such as minimizing waste and composting and its addition to soil to enhance soil health, fertility, and water retention. Environment-friendly approaches to managing pests and diseases, and the importance of beneficial insects, including pollinators, are also often taught, including the enhancement of biodiversity in school gardens combined with cultural approaches, such as cover crops, mulching, companion planting, and hand collection of damaging pests. All of this raises awareness and capacity of students in regenerative agriculture including its contribution to a more sustainable food system.

Sustainability is enhanced with seed saving practices, which are now a special feature of the Philippine government’s school garden programme

FIGURE 1.2 Sustainability is enhanced with seed saving practices, which are now a special feature of the Philippine government’s school garden programme.

Source: IIRR.


Soils for Life, an Australian non-profit organization, dedicates its mission to promoting regenerative management practices in farming, also known as regenerative agriculture. Maintaining healthy soils is fundamental to the work of Soils for Life, who believe that regenerative management practices are key to restoring soil quality. Regenerative agriculture not only promotes agrobiodiversity and output productivity but also the overall resilience and sustainability of the system. Through identifying successful regenerative management practices and innovations and disseminating this knowledge through peer- to-peer exchange programmes, through which experienced land managers are partnered with farmer mentors in a 12-month-long dynamic process, Soils for Life works to encourage and support the adoption of regenerative agriculture. Besides promoting regenerative management practices with farmers and land managers, Soils for Life also aims to share its knowledge with other members in the community. One avenue through which Soils for Life works to achieve this is through their school garden programme, which partners with primary schools to establish an educational garden where children can learn about the crucial role soil plays in a healthy ecosystem. The organization believes that children should have an understanding about not only how their food is grown but also the importance of healthy soil to their food. Soils for Life has been advocating and promoting a national school garden policy for Australia, as an engaging medium whereby students can learn biological concepts, such as photosynthesis, as well as environmental issues, such as carbon sequestration.


Linked to this is the role of school gardens and associated activities in fostering livelihood and business skills among pupils in the area of market gardening and value adding especially in agriculture-dependent economies where it might be particularly important to focus on developing the horticultural and entrepreneur- ship skills of older students (FAO, 2010). However, such skills are certainly not exclusive to economies where agriculture dominates. The growing global interest in local food and healthy eating continues to provide increasing opportunities to students with skills in gardening and food irrespective of geography (Box 1.2).


Employing the school's instructional outdoor classroom polytunnel, entrepreneurial students at Moville Community College in County Donegal, Ireland have been growing vegetables, which they now supply to the local hotel and restaurant trade. The students began studying horticulture as part of their transition year. When the summer came around, they volunteered to keep working on their plot so that it could benefit from the summer growing season. A local chef who had already spotted the work going on at the school's polytunnel suggested the students link up with the hospitality industry in the area. The owner of the Foyle Hotel, on Moville's main street, says he is proud to list the school on his menus as one of his suppliers. 'The students deliver their produce once a week - they put it in boxes and walk down from the school to the hotel. Their carrots and cabbage were on our Sunday lunch menu last weekend'. The students did not have much experience of horticulture, though they admit to becoming quite protective of their produce. 'It's not like in class, when you might just be watching1, says one of the students. ‘You're the one doing the planting and the harvesting, so they're your plants'. The initiative has also led to requests by the restaurant for new crops and plants, which has led to the students testing and evaluating options to see what grows well. From the teachers' point of view, it is a practical way of building interest and skills among their students. 'There's often a fear around growing your own food as adults', said one horticulture teacher, 'but they've seen that it takes very little, and that's learning they'll take with them for life'. The students and wider school community also get to see vegetables they might never have encountered before, and taste them, and know they can grow local produce. It also has a wider relevance. The school is part of the United Nations' Global Schools Programme, which is committed to education around the sustainable development goals including responsible consumption and production and climate action. 'It's about changing the mindset of students in schools', explained the home economics teacher. 'They are learning habits which they then bring home to their community'. The students also supply another local restaurant, Inish Fusion; its owner is a very satisfied customer. 'The quality is as good as anything else out there, it's hard to beat it, and it's so fresh. You couldn't ask for anything more local than this'.

Source: the-lettuce-growing-donegal-pupils-work-the-school-plot-1.3997850

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