The Green Heart Project is learning something about its mission.
The volunteer organization – which puts gardens in schools and uses them to teach kids about math and science as well as the food system, the environment and healthy eating – is rooted in a desire to bring low-income students into contact with fresh, healthy food and teach them about where it comes from.
“It’s extremely important for the low income community because they are at a higher risk for…diet related health diseases,” Executive Director Drew Harrison said. But as the organization has grown and expanded its program, he said they’ve come to understand that food education is crucial for all students.
“It’s not only the low income students, but our entire future generations that are at risk in general.”
In 2015, the Green Heart Project partnered with the engineering and site design firm Seamon Whiteside to design and build a garden Sullivan’s Island Elementary School. The school sought out the program and funded it with money from the Friends of Sullivan’s Island Elementary School because “it aligns with a lot of initiatives and goals that we have,” Principal Susan King said.
One of them those is to teach kids about nutrition, and while most Sullivan’s Island Elementary students don’t lack exposure to fresh produce, it can be a challenge to get any kid to want to try new vegetables.
“A lot of time they won’t taste something or try something unless it’s presented in a different way,” King said.
So she was somewhat pleasantly surprised to see students munching on a variety of radishes they grew in the school garden last year during a tasting. The school also offers a different kind of smoothie in the cafeteria every week, and it uses some of the garden’s veggies in those.
But crucial to any program attached to a school, the garden acts as a living lab, and Green Heart Project organizers have designed ways to tie that lab directly and meaningfully into curriculum requirements, really out of necessity.
The project started as a strictly in-school program, but Harrison said that the more involved they got, the more they realized how precious that time during school hours was to teachers. If they were going to ask them to bring their students out to the garden during the day, they would need to connect that time in the garden to the in-class curriculum.
Now, the Green Heart Project has an in-school program as well as after school and summer programs, and when the students are in the garden during the school day, “it’s really focused on math and science,” Harrison said.
In some cases, those lessons are built into the work of keeping a garden, like in the case of monitoring soil acidity. Plants absorb nutrients when the soil is slightly acidic, so it’s crucial to keep a measure of the pH value – a measure of acidity – of the soil, Harrison explained.
So fifth-graders test the soil, analyze the results using graphs, and recommend whether to take a certain action to regulate the pH, which are things they have to learn at that age anyway.
“It’s applicable to our garden, it’s necessary,” Harrison said.
Another example is a lesson the Green Heart Project does with fourth-graders to teach them about ultraviolet light, a lesson standard for students at that age.
Unlike humans, bees have the ability to see ultraviolet light, which helps them see certain patterns on flowers invisible to humans that help them find nectar. The Green Heart Project uses iPads to show students how flowers in the garden look to bees would, which incorporates required learning standards about ultraviolet light. What’s more, Kind said it does so in a way that aligns what they’re learning with a deeply educational, hands-experience.
“That’s a recipe for kids understanding conceptually, not just having a good time with a hands-on experiment,” she said.
She saw that in the questions they asked, good, difficult questions, and in the depth of the lesson, taking the ideas to a level of demonstrating that bees evolved with different abilities than humans and exploring why. King said that depth is born out of the collaboration between the many educators involved – the in-class teacher, science lab teacher and two instructors from Greenheart.
“I know that lesson would never have happened without that collaboration,” she said.
Plus, Harrison said the bee lesson is a chance for them to introduce some ideas that are not in the curriculum.
“It’s an opportunity for us to teach the students about the bees and how important they are,” Harrison said.
Along the way, the project added an extra-curricular after school program as well, in which students work with volunteers, members of the community that help maintain the gardens. The lessons learned deal more with topics of agriculture and how food connects to the environment and culture.
Over the summer, the Green Heart Project invites particularly interested students to continue helping out. They’ve also partnered with Lowcountry Local First to turn over management of the farm to people in that organization’s Growing New Farmers training program, of which Harrison himself is a graduate.
The garden at Sullivan’s Island Elementary has blossomed into other opportunities as well. One of them, King said, is the possibility to collaborate with other schools like Mitchell Elementary in Downtown Charleston, where the Greenheart Project began. Not only can teachers share information and lessons from their shared outdoor classrooms, but it opens the door for Sullivan’s Island Elementary to visit Mitchell’s expansive garden, or Mitchell’s students to explore the nature trails on Sullivan’s Island.
Plus, Sullivan’s Island’s garden, as well as a garden at Meeting Street Elementary, was designed and helped built by the engineering firm Seamon Whiteside.
That in itself also helps the project, Harrison said, because it gives them an opportunity to turn translate their visions for educational school gardens into professionally designed plans, which they can show to school districts and potential donors.
While the gardens don’t grow enough to supply the cafeterias of the schools that have gardens, occasionally they grow enough that they can offer something. Every garden grows sweet potatoes, and on Oct. 24 – food day – the project will help school staff process the potatoes so they can serve them in a sort of harvest celebration. Harrison said they are hoping to break 500 pounds of sweet potatoes harvested this year, but even then, that will only last the schools two or three weeks, and the point is not to be their source of fresh produce.
“What we’re able to grow in the gardens is really just a demonstration,” Harrison said. “Our end goal is to expose our students that we’re working with to healthy foods.”