In the heart of downtown Hyannis, Hy West Elementary School faces a unique set of socioeconomic challenges. Compared to student population averages at school districts and statewide, Hyannis West has a disproportionate number of low-income students: 57 percent of the school’s student body is considered economically disadvantaged, almost double the average statewide. But in addition to that, School Garden Coordinator Sue LaVallee says there’s a wide array of other challenges.
“45% speak a different language at home, 85% receive free and reduced lunch um and 11% are considered homeless,” said LaVallee.
To qualify for free or reduced lunch, children must come from families at or below 185% of the poverty level—for a family of four, that means they’re bringing in at or below thirty thousand dollars a year. Research clearly shows students from lower-income households typically face greater learning challenges than students from affluent households, but amidst all this literature, school gardens are a clear bright spot.
“Well everybody knows if a kids see it grows, they’re more likely to try it,” said LaVallee.
It’s not just that trying fruits and vegetables is so life-changing, but exposure to school garden programs is linked to all kinds of improved health outcomes: better social-emotional skills, lower stress levels, improved grades and test scores and enhanced knowledge across multiple subject areas. For example growing lettuce requires a combination of planning, care-taking, responsibility, and hands-on science learning. Data from a 2013 USDA Farm to School Census shows school gardens are significantly less common at schools that serve mainly low-income students—making Hyannis West’s program exceptional. The idea for the garden was planted in 2013 by a Craigville community activist named Steve Brown:
“He came to our PTO meeting with a check for $1000 and he suggested how about a school garden. I’m a master gardener since 2004 and my kids have been going to school here since 2007 so I immediately jumped at the chance, said yes that would be great,” said LaVallee.
Lavallee worked with Brown to apply for another grant through the Whole Foods Whole Kids Foundation, and with the support of the PTO received enough money to dig up the grass, put in raised beds, protect the garden with a fence, and add an irrigation system.
Kindergarten teacher Moira Bundschuh says most of her students when they arrive to start school have had very little access to gardens or even a place at home to play outside.
“Most kids don’t have a garden at home, a lot of our kids live in apartments so they don’t or they rent and they’re maybe not allowed to do it in the place where they rent,” said Bundschuh. “So it’s a completely new experience to dig in the dirt, they really have, a lot of them have never done it. We’re kindergarten, so it’s new and exciting.”
You can hear the kids’ enthusiasm as they inspect the growth of a lettuce patch they planted in the spring, exclaiming things like, “This is so cool! Look! Is that real, is that real? This is real! Get your hand in there…”
A randomized, controlled study in 2015 at low-income elementary schools across the US divided kids into two groups—some got time a school garden classroom, others didn’t. The findings were clear: the school garden intervention raised kids science knowledge—and the higher the dose, or the more time they spent in the garden, the stronger the effect.
“I think for them a lot of it is the tie in that science is real and that there’s a reason why we’re learning things and how what we do impacts both the earth and the world around us and that food comes from somewhere, not just a lunch tray or a package,” said Bundschuh. “It’s really big for us.”
Hyannis West’s garden program is part of a national movement getting young kids learning in the garden outside. The same 2013 USDA Farm to School Census found 42 percent of US school districts say they participate in farm to school activities—a number that continues to grow.