Thanks to $1 million in NATO legacy funds, thousands of CPS students will now have increased learning opportunities in science and nutrition education. The funds will go toward the creation of learning gardens at 60 CPS schools – a part of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s commitment to invest excess funds from the 2012 NATO summit into community projects across the city.
The learning gardens, which will act as both an extension of the classroom and an enhancement of playgrounds and other outdoor environments, are a project of The Kitchen [Community], a Denver-based nonprofit that seeks to connect kids with real food by creating outdoor, garden-based classrooms.
“We’re working to reverse the childhood obesity trend in this country,” said Peter Vitale, who manages the Chicago initiatives of The Kitchen [Community] (TKC). “By raising their awareness of fruits and vegetables, we help connect kids with real food.”
Founded in 2011, TKC organizes and implements learning gardens across the country, providing students with fun, educational tools for learning about healthy food choices. Students play an active role in designing and implementing a garden, then learn to plant, nurture, harvest, and prepare the fruits and vegetables that are part of a healthy diet. Each learning garden includes fruit trees, shrubs and vegetable beds to create a hands-on science and nutrition education while increasing student exposure to physical activity in an outdoor environment.
The new gardens will bring the total number of learning gardens in CPS to 75, one of which is located at Irma C. Ruiz Elementary, a school serving 931 students from Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. “It’s great to see the kids stepping away from all the technology in their lives and getting their hands dirty,” said Dana Butler, Principal at Ruiz. “It’s a chance for them to take responsibility, not only for the garden, but for their own health and nutrition choices.”
Butler, who places the strongest possible emphasis on instruction, calls the academic aspects of the learning garden wonderful. “This is not an add-on,” he said. “The garden is an essential part of our curriculum. We assign different plots to different classrooms, and our teachers take the hands-on activities the students do and integrate them into the existing standards that have been identified for science in the Common Core Standards.”
According to Butler, the academic benefits are second only to the social and emotional effect that the garden has produced for Ruiz students and their community. “It’s a great tool for socialization, and it gives the kids something to be proud of,” he said. “And we’ve noticed that the more beautiful the garden has become, the more families and community members have come out to enjoy it. In many ways, it’s brought the whole neighborhood together.”
Ruiz, which was part of the Learning Garden Pilot Program last spring, hosted Mayor Emmanuel as he announced the new investment of $1 million for the creation of 60 new learning gardens in CPS schools. Schools interested in having a garden will submit applications to TKC and will be evaluated based on several factors, including capacity and intent to integrate the garden into the school’s academic curriculum.
For more information on learning gardens and other initiatives of The Kitchen [Community], visit www.thekitchencommunity.org