All across America, schools are using edible gardens to reconnect students with the natural world. Student gardens, like the one at Thomas Starr King Middle School, are part of a larger movement to reduce obesity, educate youth about the food system, and build healthier, more vibrant communities. From New York to California, students learn about attracting local pollinators by sprouting wildflower seeds, build vegetable plots to grow edible crops, turn compost, and study biodiversity as it exists in their garden communities.
It’s In Our Roots
Though interest in farm-to-school is on the rise, the use of gardening in education is not a novel concept. School gardens have been a facet of European education since the early 1800’s and were first introduce in the US in 1891. By 1906, the USDA estimated that there were over 75,000 school gardens across the country. During World War I, the Federal Bureau of Education initiated relief gardening to provide a distraction from the mounting panic associated with the time. By World War II interest in student-gardens fizzled out, and though the movement was rejuvenated during the environmental movement of the 1970’s, it has only recently regained traction across the county.
In urban areas, school gardens offer city kids an opportunity to connect with America’s agricultural roots and to spend time in nature. No matter their location, students who cultivate their own crops can more easily distinguish the differences between the food they’ve grown and what they are seeing in the supermarkets. They begin to ask questions about pesticides and field worker protections, identify the difference between local food systems versus global food systems, and ultimately, realize the incredible amount of work that goes into producing and distributing food.
Today, I split my time between the Havasi Wilderness Foundation and The Abundant Table Farm, a 5-acre parcel of earth that has taught me that infinite patience and skilled work are required to grow both food and community. Walking along rows of student-grown fava beans, artichoke, and chard, I wonder what my life would have been like if, at age ten, my elementary school teachers would have set the books aside and taken us outside to work in a school garden. Would I have known the difference between a fava bean and a green bean or understood the true power that these legumes possess?
The Flowering Fava
Vicia faba, also known as the fava bean, broad bean, or the field bean, is a flowering plant native to North Africa and the southern parts of Asia. Like a green bean, the outer layer of the fava bean is bright-green and covered in peach fuzz. Break open one of these magical legumes and you are greeted by a fuzzy casing that houses large, kidney-shaped beans. The beans themselves taste great raw, stewed, or when processed into a hummus-like paste. Grown widely around the world, fava beans have recently become a favorite of chefs in the US. As the legume continues to climb the ladder of fame, I have discovered one more thing to love about them-their flowers! When studied closely, it is nearly impossible not to marvel at the delicate beauty of their black and white blossoms or delight in their sweet-scented aroma.
Aside from their observable beauty, the versatile fava plant provides a tremendous amount of support to the soil ecology. Fava beans are a “nitrogen-fixing” crop that suppresses weeds, improves the texture of the earth, and reintroduces nitrogen to the soil. Though approximately 80 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere is nitrogen gas, most plants can only absorb nitrogen through the soil. Enter the life-changing powers of bacteria! Fava beans and other legumes maintain a symbiotic relationship with the soil-dwelling bacteria that convert gaseous nitrogen from the air into nitrogen packed food for the legumes. Legumes (like fava beans) keep the bacteria happy by nourishing them with the carbohydrates that are active inside of the plant. After the beans have been harvested, many farmers and at-home gardeners turn the soil under (a process that involves physically turning the soil so that remaining plants and foliage become mixed into the earth) and the nitrogen-rich soil is ready to support a new generation of healthy crops. So cheers to Vicia faba for working to feed our bodies and our soil!