This past year has changed my outlook on a lot of different things. I’ve always been passionate about Public and Community Health, and I’ve always seen the value in quality and affordable education. But what I never saw value in until I lived in The Gambia was the field of agriculture. Being from Southwestern Pennsylvania, we had our fair share of farmlands, horticulture, and fairs to showcase different agricultural products. But for some reason in my privileged upbringing, I looked down on all of that. I made fun of friends who were from more rural schools and whom were interested in agriculture. I even made fun of my brother when he was interested in equestrian, seeing it all as pointless. And that’s because of how removed I was from our food systems.
I’ve written blogs on food systems and agriculture before, but I want to elaborate on my lack of interest in agriculture and beyond that my superiority toward those who engaged in it. Agriculture is the main means of income for 95% of my community in The Gambia and probably about 95% of the country, if not more. Even though the farming season is only a few months long, farmers must work and sell their crops to sustain their families for the rest of the year. We’re currently in gardening season, and people go back and forth to the gardens in the mornings and the evenings everyday. People own goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, chickens and more as a means of providing for their families. They care about these things because their lives and the lives of their children depend on it, quite literally. They sell most of the produce and eat what they can, hoping to be able to provide all year round.
Recently we’ve started our school garden. This is something that I couldn’t have cared less about in Pennsylvania, began to see the benefits in New Orleans, and now am completely obsessed with here in The Gambia. We didn’t have a school garden last year, and I pushed and pushed for us to get organized and set one up this year. Here are just some of the benefits I’ve seen in school gardens:
1. Responsibility: students are assigned to bring their own bucket, fetch water, water and tend to their gardens everyday. This gives students in grades 4-12 opportunities to be held responsible for their garden beds, even when teachers and administration go on holidays.
2. Teamwork: we have a hand pump outside the garden. Some students work the hand pump, some transfer the buckets of water, and some tend to the gardens. If someone is absent, they work together to get all of the beds watered.
3. Appreciation of Food: gardens are hard work. The food in their lunches doesn’t just appear out of thin air, and they know it.
4. Appreciation of nutrition: I joke with them, “Can you grow candy in the ground? No, but you can grow lettuce and tomatoes and eggplants. The things you grow here in the garden are the things that are going to make you healthier and stronger.”
5. Healthy Social Space: students are busy at home with chores and busy at school with class but a garden gives them a safe and fun way to socialize and hang out with their friends. This is my favorite part because they feel safe enough to ask difficult questions. We’ve discussed issues like teenage pregnancy, early marriage, and dropping out of school.
So why did I never have a school garden? Most of you in the States right now are laughing at me through your screens as the next blizzard rolls through Pennsylvania, thinking how could we possibly have a garden here. But it’s possible! Have a garden in the fall or the spring or even over the summer! Give kids something healthy and productive to do while teaching about nutrition and responsibility. Even have small plants inside and have students be responsible for them. In New Orleans, I worked with a program called Edible Schoolyards that incorporated gardening and nutrition into their elementary school syllabus. It gets kids outside, it helps them learn, and it gives them appreciation for the food they eat and the people who grow it.
We have so many international crises happening that are all somehow agriculturally related. Malnutrition (both undernutrition and obesity), climate change, unsafe meat processing, diabetes and hypertension, lack of employment, and many more. Students should be more aware of the agricultural impacts on the world and on their bodies, and that awareness could start in a school garden.