Viewpoint

New CMS position is far from a ‘fluff job’

Marcus McFarland, left, Food Corps Service member, talks to Jody Francisco, center, CMS' new Manager of Culinary Development and gardner Jacob Huffman during a July 7 tour of school gardens at Shamrock Gardens Elementary.
Marcus McFarland, left, Food Corps Service member, talks to Jody Francisco, center, CMS' new Manager of Culinary Development and gardner Jacob Huffman during a July 7 tour of school gardens at Shamrock Gardens Elementary. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In the recent controversy over CMS hiring and salaries, some have suggested that a high-level position focused on growing healthy food and getting it onto students’ plates is a “fluff job.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Those of us who work and volunteer in CMS school gardens have wanted a position like this for years.

Studies have consistently shown that school gardens benefit students of all ages in areas that include science abilities, social and life skills, environmental awareness, knowledge of nutrition and healthy food choices. But gardening is a labor-intensive process, and running an effective garden program takes time, skills and administrative support.

Moving from growing to cooking and eating requires yet another level of expertise: training staff to cook in new ways, encouraging students to eat new foods, and navigating the health and safety regulations for food in school cafeterias.

A systematic effort to build up CMS’s garden and nutrition programs will have far-reaching effects, with significant benefits for students and their communities. The Garinger Farm, created with a major infusion of funding and expertise from Friendship Gardens, 100 Gardens, and other community partners, is an excellent example of this potential.

In the years the farm has been in operation, curriculum-based lessons in the garden space have offered students hands-on, experiential learning opportunities that include horticulture, engineering, aquaponics, entrepreneurship and farm management. Students expand on this knowledge through courses at CPCC. Partnerships with the Mayor’s Youth Employment Program, Charlotte Works and MeckEd have helped us to expand these learning opportunities into real-life paid positions after school and in the summer.

Many of our students struggle with academics, social interactions, and personal issues. Using the techniques of horticultural therapy, we have helped students find success in these areas through group and individual activities focused on personal goals.

The effect can be magical. I vividly remember the day a shy, somewhat reluctant Garinger student joined our after-school garden club. At first she wasn’t sure she wanted to garden at all. Before long, however she had stopped relying on fast food and started eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. She lost weight and had more energy.

As she began to teach others about garden-related issues, she blossomed. She eventually applied to and entered college with a degree in horticulture as a goal. She regularly updates me on her academic progress and on the community garden she helped create in her college town.

School gardens and are not just about growing food, but about growing community and healthy children. They are about re-connecting with the earth, nature, our food and each other.

Garinger is an example of what a school garden program can achieve. But sustaining and expanding these accomplishments can’t be done by volunteers, or by asking already-overburdened teachers to take on a new set of tasks. It requires dedicated resources. By making gardens and nutrition a greater central-office priority, our new superintendent has set the stage for making CMS into a national model for this essential endeavor.

Bobbie Mabe is a horticultural therapy consultant and owner of Growth Through Gardening who has worked in CMS gardens as a volunteer and school system employee.

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