Through Druid City Garden Project, UA students help connect children and communities to their food sources.

By:    Date: 07-25-2016

Article by Cara Walker

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Click here to watch a video of UA students talking about their experience with service learning through Druid City Garden Project.

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Druid City Garden Project, a nonprofit that relies heavily on University of Alabama student volunteers and partnerships with UA service-learning courses, is thriving and expanding six years after it broke ground in May 2010. The nonprofit’s mission is to support healthy food choices and empower communities through food – with school gardens, farm stands and educational programs.

UA student Leah Juliano worked with DCGP as part of UH 120 Let’s Grow, an Honors College course in which students teach and facilitate lessons in elementary-school gardens, and says the experience changed her life. “At the time, I was really struggling with feeling confident and secure in my major [communicative disorders],” she says. “While taking the class, working with young children in a beautiful garden, seeing them light up and experience learning outside, and being a guide in that, made me realize that I was meant to be an elementary-school educator.”

Juliano is now pursuing a graduate degree in education.

Druid City Garden Project operates school gardens in the Tuscaloosa area and leads classes in seven schools. The program has operated in the Tuscaloosa City School District since 2010 and expanded to the Tuscaloosa County School System in 2015. Now, more than 3,300 children learn about healthy eating, community gardening and sustainability each year through weekly, garden-based lessons that connect classroom activities to the real world and meet Alabama’s Course of Study guidelines. Through its Gardens 2 Schools program, DCGP seeks to assist every Alabama school in establishing a teaching garden.

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Children at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools – Elementary advertise their farm stand.

UA students from across disciplines have contributed to Druid City Garden Project. During the 2015-16 academic year, 273 UA students dedicated 3,134 service hours to the organization. This represents more than 80 percent of DCGP’s total volunteer hours for the year.

In addition to Let’s Grow courses, a New College organic farming course regularly collaborates with DCGP, and eight other service-learning courses worked with the organization during 2015-16. Through partnerships with DCGP, UA medical students constructed items including a wash station, benches for an outdoor classroom and a storage shed to house gardening tools; sculpture students, led by associate professor Craig Wedderspoon, designed and built dozens of raised beds for school gardens; graphic-design students created the logo for DCGP’s Gardens 2 Schools program and a design template for lesson plans; students in instructor Tracy Sims’ APR 332 Public Relations Writing course created campaigns for the organization; and instructor Randall Huffaker’s APR 423 Advertising Management class worked on organizational objectives and strategic placement.

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After picking radishes in their garden, children at Central Elementary School each receive a sample of the vegetable.

During the 2014-15 and 2015-2016 academic years, the UA Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility provided DCGP with a full-time post-graduate fellowship and a part-time post-graduate to assist in expanding service-learning initiatives. This support led to new partnerships with more than 10 UA classes and departments and will help DCGP expand into three more schools in Fall 2016.

Let’s Grow courses
In class at UA, Let’s Grow students learn about experiential education, food systems, child nutrition and the benefits and methods of garden education. They then use this knowledge while teaching and facilitating lessons in elementary-school gardens.

Juliano, who was looking for a class she would enjoy as a break in her rigorous schedule, says her favorite part of the course was seeing kids’ reactions as they watched their plants grow. “They felt so special to have grown their own food,” she says. “From planting the seeds to harvesting and eating their yummy plants, the children were so enlightened. And so was I.”

Students in the Let’s Grow course spend three hours each week working with Druid City Garden Project to provide garden lessons at elementary schools in the Tuscaloosa area. UA students also help children operate farm stands where they sell the produce they’ve grown to the community. In Fall 2015, Honors College launched UH 405 Let’s Grow Leaders as a way for UA students to continue partnering with DCGP in a leadership role. In Spring and Fall 2015, 39 UA students dedicated 1,421 hours to working with children through Let’s Grow and Let’s Grow Leaders.

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A child at Oakdale Elementary School draws a map of the school’s garden.

Joya Elmore, director of the Gardens 2 Schools program and instructor for both UH 120 Let’s Grow and UH 405 Let’s Grow Leaders, says it’s important for students to step outside their bubbles and connect with the community.

“Within the Let’s Grow course, students are given the opportunity to engage in hands-on lessons that also teach them how to garden organically,” Elmore says. “They also experience the real-life difference that garden-based education makes in elementary students’ lives as they mentor these students.”

Organic Farming course
Rachel Solino, who graduated in 2015 with a degree in international relations and Spanish, got involved with the Druid City Garden Project through NEW 226 Organic Farming. “The Organic Farming course is unique to the university as is the learning experience,” she says. “As a novice gardener, I had little confidence outside, but with guided steps and a further understanding of the science behind the soil, I learned to trust myself in the garden.”

Organic Farming, which covers the basics of organic farming while addressing questions about organic versus industrial agriculture models in relation to current environmental problems and solutions, tasks students with designing and carrying out a project over the semester with DCGP. Lindsay Turner, executive director of DCGP and co-instructor of UA’s organic farming course along with DCGP garden manager Mo Fiorella, says students have completed projects from worm composting to business plans for specialty crops. In Spring and Fall 2015, 14 organic farming students spent 650 hours working on DCGP projects.

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With the help of UA student Soledad Cortes-Hernandez, Oakdale Elementary students Demarion Pippen [left] and Paul Jones Jr. prepare to sell the food they’ve grown.

Mary Frances Maranto, a 2015 graduate who double majored in communicative disorders and Spanish, says she appreciated the experiential nature of the organic farming class and developed a strong interest in gardening through it. “I love it when I see how something I learned from a textbook or a class lecture actually plays out in the real world,” she says. “I felt like I really [came] away with some skills I could continue to sharpen with my own gardening.”

Turner says DCGP is working on publishing a curriculum accessible to all Alabama elementary school teachers by summer 2016. “It is our dream to one day have a garden at every school in Alabama,” Turner says. “It is a wonderful teaching tool that has shown to improve healthy eating behavior, get kids excited about school, improve standardized testing scores and even lower BMI.”

For more information about UA service-learning opportunities with Druid City Garden Project, contact Lindsay Turner at director@druidcitygardenproject.org or Joya Elmore at joya@druidcitygardenproject.org.