Initially, we sought to create a model for participatory curriculum creation with the potential to unite farmers and community members to build a more cohesive, sustainable food system. We aimed to use community resources to improve food systems literacy in the Gompers Elementary School community in Madison, Wisconsin. In the fall and winter of 2019 and 2020 we began creating curriculum, shaped by a committee of farmers and community members. This curriculum included field trips to local farms which we executed in the fall of 2019 and experiential learning opportunities in the classroom which were planned for the spring of 2020. We aimed to finalize this curriculum and evaluation tools with the help of teachers and students in the spring of 2020.
However, with the spread of COVID-19, we were unable to finalize the curriculum and evaluation tools. We dramatically pivoted the project to meet community identified needs during this time. We partnered with the school’s principal to ask families and teachers what their priorities were after the school district closed in March. Parents, guardians, teachers and staff identified multiple priorities including access to fresh fruit and vegetables and at-home education opportunities for the entire household. Using this feedback, we created a survey for interested community members to describe their environment for growing food, what they would be interested in growing, what tools they have available to them, and how they would be interested in learning about gardening. Forty-five families signed up for the Gompers Grows Garden Kit program and we delivered kits with a variety of seeds, seedlings, soil, and tools. Each kit was catered to the survey respondent’s growing environment and preferences. We created weekly blog and video content to guide families along with bi-weekly formative evaluation surveys. At the end of the project, we evaluated the program by sending out a summative survey and interviewing five parents via Zoom about their experience.
Even through the collaborative process to create and evaluate was halted, we were still able to create a network of farmers, students, and community members to build social and cultural capital in the Gompers Elementary School community. Short term learning outcomes included increasing community and student knowledge of the local food system through place-based experiential curriculum. We conducted a formative survey, respondents (parents and guardians) noted that students gained more agency and responsibility during the course of the project. Forty-five families had improved access to locally grown vegetables and fruits. Furthermore, our surveys and interviews indicated that participants were able to share resources and knowledge, creating a network of gardeners in the Gompers Elementary School neighborhood.
Long term outcomes of this project include fostering a multigeneration community of gardeners in the Gompers Elementary school neighborhood and a community-wide commitment to the Gompers Grows program in future years. Additionally, by providing the opportunity for students to grow their confidence and experience in growing food, we hope for students to see sustainable agriculture as a career pathway.
It was hard to choose one beneficiary outcome story from our interviews. One of the most meaningful quotes came from a parent who stated that the Gompers Grows kit not only provided learning opportunities but also built her children’s “confidence and their sense of power, there is so much in the world that can make you feel helpless. So this was something that we could actually do with our hands and see a change.”
Learning outcomes: The Gompers Grows Garden Kit project addressed issues of food access and self-determination by providing opportunities for community members to engage in growing their own food. Community members gained experiential understanding of the concept of sustainable agriculture. Community members learned about how their food is grown and harvested, fostering an appreciation of farmers.
Action outcomes: This process created a network of farmers, students, and community members to build social and cultural capital. Community members and students grew vegetables and fruit. Community members built community learning networks with other Gompers Grows Garden Kit recipients, family members and neighbors. Community members were able to communicate more effectively and change behavior reflecting sustainability principles learning. We hope that future surveys will show that students continue engage with sustainable agriculture through Gompers Grows and seek out careers in sustainable agriculture.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We invited farmers, teachers, community members to serve on a Farmer-Community Advisory Board to help adapt the Gompers Grows food systems curriculum for 1st-5th graders and evaluative tools for the curricula. We intended to meet four times over the grant period, however our activities were cut short due to COVID-19. Instead, we met only twice. During these two meetings we discussed and finalized the curricula progression, created a first draft of the curricula content, and we decided on the general approach to evaluating the curricula. During winter of 2020, we also began meeting with 5th grade students who had completed five years of the program to gather their input on the program curricula, goals, and evaluation tools. We began the iterative process of piloting and evaluating the new curriculum in March, but we were unable to pilot the full curriculum or any of the evaluation tools. We were only able to meet with each grade once in the spring before the school districts were closed.
We were able to complete field trips in the Fall of 2019 as a part of the Gompers Grows curricula. Each grade of students at Gompers Elementary school were able to go on one field trip. We took students to an orchard, a diversified vegetable farm, an incubator farm with vegetable crops and apiaries, and traditional indigenous agricultural lands. During this experience, 140 students, 8 teachers, and 8 guardians were exposed to different types and methods of sustainable agriculture. First grade students visited a working farm, providing many students the first chance to see how their food is grown. This created context that we intended to reference in the spring in-class curriculum. Second graders visited an orchard, building on their horticulture curriculum from the previous year and starting to learn about the food system by discussing how apples go from seeds to plate. Third and fourth graders visited Aztalan State Park, connecting to both grades’ curriculum by discussing soil history and creation as well as land use and change. Fifth graders visited the incubator farms at the Farley Center where we introduced the curriculum topic of how food is connected to community and culture. We had hoped to do additional field trips in the spring that tied into the in-class curriculum, but with the spread of COVID-19 we cancelled all 2020 field trips.
When the school district closed in March, we reached out to the advisory board and to the principal of Gompers Elementary School to reassess the project. With the guidance of our advisory board and the assistance of the principal, we were able to send a survey out to all guardians of students at Gompers Elementary School to see what their priorities were and if they would like to continue to have agricultural education programming. Using the feedback we received from the survey, we were able to create unique Gompers Grows Garden Kits to meet individual’s growing environments, seed preferences, and equipment needs. These Gompers Grows Kits were delivered to 45 households, representing over 150 people. Households on average grew three vegetable crops, one herb, and one fruit crop.
One of the priorities outlined on the survey was the need for learning opportunities that could include youth and adults. We created a Gompers Grows website (Gompersgrows.org) to house five educational videos and five educational blog posts to guide families in creating garden beds, managing pests, harvesting crops, and preserving their harvest.
We were accepted to speak at a Living Knowledge conference, about community and academic partnerships, during the summer of 2020. We hope to speak at this conference which was rescheduled for summer 2021.
Through this grant, we were able to extend learning opportunities, not just for students of Gompers Grows, but also for the wider community. Forty-five households with over 150 people were able to grow more food through this project. Qualitative responses to surveys and interviews indicated that households received many beneficial outcomes, such as reported decrease food costs, increased connection to neighbors, and increased ability to share food with others. Although we were not able to utilize the evaluation tools to measure student empowerment, we heard from guardians in the summative surveys and interviews that they saw changes in their children’s behavior that indicated enhanced ownership and empowerment through the Gompers Grows Garden Kit. Guardians also noted the difficulty of growing food and their children’s growing appreciation for those who grow the food they eat every day. This indicates a change in attitude, appreciation, and awareness for those who work in sustainable agriculture.
We were also able to finalize the Gompers Grows curriculum progression and a curriculum that can be evaluated in future years.
We imagine that in the future, students who participated in this program will continue to engage in sustainable agriculture, appreciate sustainable farmers, and pursue careers in sustainable agriculture. We also heard from survey respondents that they intended to continue to grow their own food and they hope to adopt this behavior as a part of their lifestyle.
I enhanced my ability to explain agricultural concept and facilitate discussion about these topics with audiences from different backgrounds (teachers, 5th graders, farmers).
During the field trips, I learned about the history of apple orchards in Wisconsin and the contemporary methods for producing apples. On our field trip to Atzalan State Park, I also learned about the historic legacy of Indigenous farmers in Wisconsin and the sustainable agricultural practices they used.
In meetings with the Community-Farmer advisory board, I was able to heighten my awareness about the urban sustainable farming practices and leaders in my community. I also gained awareness of the generosity of farmers who donated seeds, soils, and starts to the Gompers Grows Garden Kit project. Lastly, I learned how to organize resources and stakeholders to pivot projects to meet immediate needs and priorities of community partners during extreme circumstances.
Student provided quotes about their participation in Gompers Grows, my favorite comment came from a 5th grader:
“I can impact the food system in our community by working with Mr. Emerson. Why I think that is, is because he helps us learn how to grow vegetables and we do every time he comes. Also, we bring home most of the vegetables we grow and the rest we can eat here at Gompers when he is volunteering”
A teacher also gave favorable reviews about the program:
“We are so fortunate to have the Gompers Grows program. It has given children an invaluable experience with not only knowledge about where food comes from but also a hands on experience and working together as a team. The background from the team that facilitates this program is such an incredible asset to the students that participate as well as to our school community. While other schools have a school garden, we are lucky enough to have people, teaching us along the way and engaging the students in ways and giving them experiences they never thought possible. This program has a positive impact on all the students that participate and Gompers is very lucky!”
One unintended outcome of this project is that we ended up creating learning material to meet people in their homes, instead of students in the classroom. This led to whole families learning together, a parent noted the “never ending conversations about different types of farms” and talking “a lot about how food gets to the grocery store.”
About the Gompers Grows Garden Kit, an anonymous survey respondent simply noted, “With the pandemic, it was nice to have something positive to focus on.”