By Kathy Westra
It all started with a chance meeting between former chef and community nutrition advocate Mark Haskell and PLT GreenSchools! program manager James McGirt, who encouraged Haskell to get involved with gardens at four Washington, D.C., GreenSchools. Two years and thousands of seedlings later, gardens are thriving at the schools and, if Haskell has his way, a network of school-based greenhouses could eventually supply hundreds of school gardens in the nation’s capital with vegetable, herb and flower seedlings.
Haskell, a certified Master Gardener, has perfected a school garden recipe that has as its main ingredients the PLT GreenSchools! investigations, his own green thumb and passion for home-grown food, and the excitement of city-raised students who for the first time are learning the connections between gardening and the food they eat.
“You can use a garden to teach all sorts of things,” says Haskell. “Before we started these projects, a lot of these kids didn’t know where the food that they see on their plates came from.” He recalls the first time he helped students at Stokes Elementary, another D.C. GreenSchool, dig sweet potatoes they had planted earlier in the year. “The African teachers had been eating the sweet potato greens all summer, but when I told the kids to dig up the plants and see what was in the ground, it was like finding buried treasure. The kids didn’t know there was more there than the top of the plant.”
He was immediately peppered by questions like “How did you get them there?” and “How long were they down there?” He relates: “We were doing this in the most horrible weather imaginable, but the kids were jumping up and down with excitement, oblivious to the rain and mud. When they figured out that everything went together, it was just magic for me.
At McKinley Science and Technology High School, another PLT GreenSchool in northeast Washington, Haskell has been working with educator Joe Isaac, who teaches plant biotechnology and whose lab and classroom adjoin the school’s state-of-the-art greenhouse. The greenhouse went unused until Haskell, Isaac, and McKinley’s Green Team got inspired to put it to use in 2010.
In 2011, McKinley students planted, grew and distributed 12,000 seedlings to school gardens all around D.C. “This is important, because the right plants aren’t available from commercial growers at the right time of year for school gardens,” Haskell notes. He has his eye on unused greenhouses at several other D.C. schools, and hopes what he and McKinley’s Green Team have accomplished will inspire a network of school greenhouses that can supply plants to more than 100 outdoor gardens at D.C. school sites.
In addition to being a powerful learning tool for students, Haskell hopes the gardens he is helping to create will eventually play a role in changing the face of nutrition in the schools of the nation’s capital, introducing fresh, locally grown foods into school cafeterias, one school at a time.