Saturday, June 6, 2009

Institutionalized Gardening

Despite the excessive driving and gas guzzlage, visiting all of the sites with Chrissa Carlson made for a productive and wonderful Wednesday. Though claiming to represent "the man", Chrissa's voice spoke louder for the children of Baltimore City Schools than for any government system. The benefit of playing this part is that she has the opportunity to find loopholes around and healthy alternatives to the legalities of school food, bringing community and institution together. The problem, however, appears when other people come between the two. Teachers, who one would assume care passionately about their students and job, sometimes just don't want to "waste time" gardening when Chrissa isn't there. I emphasize sometimes because we met one teacher who clearly loved her job helping the students: Ariel Demas, of Hampstead Hill Academy, who I'll talk about further on.

The day began with a visit to Rosemont Elementary, a charter school affiliated with the nearby Coppin State University. An unfortunate realization came to pass as Chrissa was informed that two men had urinated on the garden, forcing the school's decision to refuse any future harvested crops. "I think this project is doomed," Chrissa said as she approached the class with the bad news. But as we all know, a simple wash (hopefully not in the Baltimore City School leaded water) is all you need to clean those crops. Disappointed, we all got in our cars and drove off to RICA. And I must say that RICA truly met the vision stated on their website:

"Our vision is to be a national model comprehensive care provider of quality mental health treatment and educational services to emotionally disturbed adolescents and their families. The services offered are fully integrated into the continuum of care available in Maryland."

Without a doubt, this school is devoted to the education of their students. Now I wont risk getting anyone in trouble here, so I wont say much other than some great loopholes can really benefit the students!

Our next trip was over to East Baltimore near Patterson Park at Hampstead Hill Academy, which brings us back to Ariel Demas. Mrs. Demas' program at Hampstead Hill Academy is magnificent. These students will come out of school well prepared for a healthy life, as well as socially and culturally educated, things I wish I had the privilege of learning in my younger years. At Hampstead Hill Academy, we practically gutted and replanted the butterfly garden, where the monarch butterflies Mrs. Demas' students watched grow from caterpillars were to be released on Thursday. Another charter school, Hampstead Hill Academy is blessed with a Principal who truly cares about the education and growth of his students. If only similar ideologies could be practiced in all the rest of Baltimore's schools.

Our day was drawn to an end in front of City Hall. The new garden initiatives that have progressed in the last year or so have already shown their fruit. Food harvested is delivered to nearby soup kitchens, and not sold. Unlike all the other gardens this class has visited, City Hall was not organic, nor pesticide-free. However, I think that can be forgiven considering the many homeless families that receive their dinners from the crops.

Of all the sites, I would argue that RICA is doing the best. I will, however, recognize that not every school has the same opportunities that RICA does. RICA is capable of incorporating summer programs and camps into the students' curriculum, while all other schools can only suggest summer activity, limiting how much they can do with their students. It limits what other schools can grow as well, only foods that can be harvested year round will do well in a school garden.
RICA also fundraise with the food they grow, something other schools don't get the chance to do.

Chrissa made some great points. Today, with fast food so cheap and readily available, children don't understand time invested in meal preparation. Because we can buy all of our food processed and frozen, our society has very little horticultural knowledge, and harvesting becomes an issue when teaching children to garden. All we need is to bring back the importance of growing local food, and then we can begin to live sustainably. We cannot continue to live off of over processed and chemically produced foods. Not only are they unhealthy, but they are energy inefficient. But as long as the government subsidizes certain foods, people will always take the easy way out, buying those cheap foods. We need more people like Chrissa to get involved. More people who can bring the government and the people together for the benefit of the whole.

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