Growing Hope at University Place Elementary School Garden

By Julie Parker-Dickerson

Children plant collards at the University Place Elementary School Garden.

On April 27th, 2011 an EF4 tornado passed through the Tuscaloosa, Alabama community with winds reaching nearly 190 mph. The 1.5 mile-wide tornado leveled the neighborhood surrounding University Place Elementary School, leaving little evidence of homes and businesses that once thrived there. After the storm cleared, families assessed what remained amid the destruction. Under the rubble, evidence of the University Place Elementary School Garden was still visible.

To help meet the immediate needs of people in the devastated city, community members and school staff unearthed root vegetables from the garden to feed the many families displaced by the storm. The National Gardening Association is inspired by the efforts of University Place Elementary and is a long-term supporter of the Druid City Garden Project, the local nonprofit that provides support and leadership for the Tuscaloosa school garden. Three grants, including the 2014 Youth Garden Grant, have helped to provide necessary supplies and funding that helped University Place Elementary School Garden during one of its darkest hours.

The garden is integrated into academic work at the school.

While the rebuilding of homes and structures in the neighborhood took nearly two years and continues today, the reconstruction of the school garden became an immediate goal of the neighborhood. ″The garden became the centerpiece of the school and an example of resilience and renewal amidst so much destruction,″ comments Druid City Garden Project School Education Director Rashmi Grace. ″We were able to build another garden and continue our education program seamlessly in the subsequent school year.″ Local farmers and financial support from grants played a key role in reviving the garden. In the end the size of the original garden space was doubled and a greenhouse, water cistern, additional raised beds, irrigation, sheds, and a new in-ground garden area were added.

The farm stand offers lessons in leadership, business skills, and the value of hard work.

The Budding Entrepreneurs Program is a new initiative of the Druid City Garden Project that gives the community direct access to fresh fruits and vegetables and plays a critical role in the development of children participating in garden programming at University Place Elementary. While much of the produce is consumed during the school day for the purpose of academic instruction, a portion is set aside to sell at a low cost to families in the community. Through their student-run farm stand, the Budding Entrepreneurs grow and market their produce, keep accounting logs, and learn about how to work with one another and their customers. Perhaps most important, this student-run farm stand provides additional educational experiences in leadership, business skills, and the value of hard work. ″The student farm stand creates access points for all of our student's families, regardless of income level, to purchase fresh, healthy food,″ comments Lindsay Turner, Program director for the Druid City Garden Project. ″University of Alabama nutrition students contribute to the health of the community by creating recipe cards of delicious and healthy garden-fresh meals that help families prepare fruits and vegetables purchased at the market.″ The farm stand is a source of pride for the children involved, who often encourage their parents to purchase produce for dinner. Additionally, any revenue generated from the stand helps to sustain the program into the next season.

Kids enjoy tasting the results of their work in the garden!

″We dream that, one day, every school in Alabama will have a teaching garden,″ says Turner. ″With that goal in mind, we aspire to continue to use our University Place Elementary School Garden as a demonstration site for school gardens, as a gathering space for teachers who are learning in our school garden professional development classes, and as a community gathering space.″ In 2014, Druid City Garden Project is expanding into three additional elementary schools.

Learn more about the Druid City Garden Project. Learn more about National Gardening Association's 2014 Youth Garden Grant.

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