CINCINNATI -- Growing your own produce at home has surged in popularity — the National Gardening Association reports that one out of every three households is now growing food. The trend has spilled over into many local schools, which cultivate their own gardens as part of the learning experience.
But what happens to all the produce students grow?
Some schools use that food to help their community.
Mercy Montessori School in East Walnut Hills is using its school garden to help feed seniors in need through the food pantry at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries. The agency works to combat the challenge of food insecurity by providing nutritionally balanced bags of food to seniors living in Walnut Hills and Evanston.
During the winter months, students germinated and studied seedlings for more than 60 types of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Some of the seedlings will be transplanted into Mercy Neighborhood Ministries’ Julie Hanser Community Garden, and the remaining plants will be grown in Mercy Montessori’s raised garden beds located on school grounds.
Much of the produce grown at the school garden will also be donated to the food pantry, but students will also be allowed to taste test the literal fruits of their labor.
While Mercy Montessori’s junior high students have taken the lead for all aspects of the garden project — with minimal adult help — the school’s younger students also have helped transplant the seedlings so that all students have a hand in the garden, said Elizabeth Zerhusen, a junior high teacher.
“The kids are learning how to garden and plant food, but also how to reach out to the community as a service project as well,” Zerhusen said.
The idea to create the garden — and donate the produce — came directly from the students, said Lisa Klus, assistant principal.
“They’ve learned the scientific process and this is how you do it, but that it doesn’t always happen the way it is supposed to,” Klus said. “They now know about the viability of seeds, the things that can grow in Ohio. They know they can come up with an idea, work together to see it through and that they can give back to the community.”
Over the summer, older students will have the opportunity to volunteer in the garden and continue to cultivate, harvest and care for the garden.
Eighth-grader Nicole Curley, of Mount Lookout, often volunteers at the Mercy Neighborhood Ministries Food Pantry and is happy to be helping the people there get fresh produce.
“I learned that it is a long process and takes awhile to get that end product, but it is going to be worth it,” Curley said.
The garden partnership between Mercy Montessori and Mercy Neighborhood Ministries also has been supported through the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati’s Adopt A Garden program and the American Montessori Society’s Ursula Thrush Peace Seed Grant.
Mercy Montessori isn’t the only school gardening for a cause. When Seton High School in West Price Hill considered starting a school garden, they decided it would be a better plan to build across the street from the school and make it a community garden. Working with the garden program through Price Hill Will and members of the neighboring community, the garden was up and running last summer.
Much of the harvest was donated through the Price Hill Summer Learning Camp, as well as to families in the area and at Seton who were in need. Members of the community who helped maintain the garden also were able to take and use the produce.
Students in the environmental classes have worked in the garden. Other students volunteer their time to weed and water, and members of a math class are working on plans to build a ramp to the garden shed, said Mary Mullen, Seton science teacher.
“It’s amazing how much we take for granted where our food comes from and how it is grown,” Mullen said.
Seton senior Mara Brown said her class has plans to set up a sustainable rain barrel watering system to eliminate the need to fill containers with a hose for watering.
“I’ve liked being able to help the community as well as to learn how different plants work,” Brown said.
Walnut Hills High School’s extracurricular green club is responsible for a garden at the school where they are also learning about sustainable gardening. While the club donated some kale to a local women’s shelter, their goal to donate more of the produce did not come to fruition last year.
Gardening has so many variables, and a wet summer last year produced a smaller-than-expected crop, said Allie Mondini, science teacher and club advisor. A critter also took a single bite out of every tomato in their crop — a frustratingly common problem for all gardeners.
But the group has high hopes this year.