Seed Sowing & Storytelling Brings Teachers, Students Together Around Local Food

Neha Shah, a teacher at Burn Parks Elementary in Ann Arbor Public schools, shares a story with her students every year. It’s Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman, and it opens up to Kim, a 9-year-old Vietnamese American girl, trekking out in the early morning chill to plant lima beans in the vacant lot across from her apartment.


“My class had sprouted lima beans in paper cups the year before,” Kim says in the story. “I now placed a bean in each of those holes. I covered them up, pressing the soil firmly down with my fingertips …”

Joined by neighbors from diverse walks of life, Kim transforms the lot, once dotted by trash, into a multicultural community garden. The lima beans she sprouted at school spurred a radical change in food access and eating habits in Kim’s neighborhood.

Kim’s story inspires Shah’s students to sow their own seeds of transformation in the garden on their Ann Arbor school grounds. With a passion for economic and social justice, Shah sought to raise student awareness about local food in her classes. Six years ago she started the King Learning Garden at King Elementary School—and it’s making a difference not just for kids, but also for food service staff and teachers.

Ann Arbor is one of 32 districts in Michigan that received state funding this year from 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan's Kids & Farms, a state pilot program administered by the Michigan Department of Education. The program supplements school food service budgets with matching funds to buy locally grown produce.

Food service directors in 10 Cents schools say when students are participating in educational experiences about local foods, they eat more of the new, local produce the grant provides.

Unlike Shah, other busy teachers weren’t as quick to get involved in the school garden. Shah made local food a focus in her classroom through research projects, trips to the farmers market, and books like Seedfolks. She acknowledges that it’s not always easy for teachers to make the farm to school connection in their classrooms.

“It’s hard to be innovative in your teaching practice because we are focused on the core curriculum,” Shah said.

But Seedfolks has been identified by HarperCollins as a Common Core–aligned resource appropriate for 6th grade. It is available in English, Spanish and an ESL-appropriate version. Following Shah’s example, other teachers are finding ways to integrate lessons about local foods into their curriculum.

“When I started the garden, barely anyone would come out, even if we offered lessons,” Shah remembers. “Five years later, [teachers] fight for garden time.”

Working together in the fresh air, students develop observation and patience, skills essential to the scientific method. The first sprouts of spring bring celebration of a job well done, and a sense of awe at nature’s progress. The garden brings important STEM learning objectives to life and energizes students and teachers in the process.

The school garden also offers opportunities for others in the community to support students, food service, and teachers.

Administrators and teachers come together with parents, farmers, and community health organizations in Ann Arbor Public Schools’ Farm to School Collaborative. These advocates plan events, talk grant strategy, and help to support 20 school gardens in the district. Their efforts ensure that students are offered opportunities to engage with local foods in the classroom, the cafeteria, and the community.

As a member of the Collaborative, Shah dedicates time each month to attend meetings, support volunteers, and support the gardens.

Her efforts pay off as students get engaged. “Kids want to learn about these things that are applicable to their everyday lives, that are enriching and meaningful.”

Kim populates her garden in Seedfolks with neighbors who are growing their own liberation in the garden. One elder reflects, “There’s plenty about my life I can’t change…but a patch of ground in this trashy lot – I can change that…That little grammar-school girl showed me that.”

Shah’s students blossom into teachers themselves. Past students energized by her creative real-world curriculum come back to teach her fourth graders. These same students have been equipped with the knowledge to become advocates in the cafeteria, at home, and in their communities.

Read more about the success Ann Arbor Public Schools and other 10 Cents a Meal grantees are having in the 2017-2018 Report to the Legislature.  

Educators can watch this webinar to learn classroom activities (vetted by curriculum specialists) that get students excited about new foods while also effectively meeting teaching goals.

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman has been identified by HarperCollins as a Common Core-aligned resource appropriate for 6th grade. It is available in English, Spanish and an ESL-appropriate version.

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