The springtime sky is moody. An inconsistent wind gusts from the south, blowing warmly across the wide-open field in east Madison. Gloomy storm clouds gather on the horizon.
"Look up at the sky," Megan Cain, the program manager for Community GroundWorks, tells a group of 40 kindergartners and first-graders. Cain wears a straw hat ringed with a bright turquoise ribbon, and stands with her feet planted in a wide stance like a benevolent drill sergeant. A few fat raindrops fall.
"Sometimes it gets a little windy," she tells the students from Kennedy Elementary. The school pulls students from the nearby middle-class neighborhood. It is a racially mixed group, split evenly between white and black students.
Cain continues, "Sometimes it gets a little rainy. And you may get dirty."
Like tiny soldiers, the students stand in two single-file rows at rapt attention, seemingly unfazed by the weather. This is their second season as part of a new outdoor education program.
Over the past several years, more than a dozen new gardens have sprung up in schoolyards across Madison. They are side projects for parents or teachers, and mostly unconnected to each other.
But taken as a whole, these gardens add up to what can decisively be called a movement - and already educators are crowing about seriously positive results.
"There are nascent garden projects everywhere in town," explains Rachel Martin, who manages the Schools Program for Sustain Dane, the local nonprofit at which I work. Martin helped start one of Madison's pioneering school gardens at Midvale School. "It is ready to explode."
The plot serving Kennedy Elementary sits at the curve of a residential road, an open space that breaks up a monotonous row of identical houses. Unlike most school gardens, this plot is managed by a nonprofit, Community GroundWorks, which also manages a rambling field near Mendota Mental Health Institute.
Last year, Community GroundWorks hosted 200 students from three different schools at this site alone. Over the next two years, Cain believes that number will more than double.
Today is the students' first day back to the garden plots after the winter hiatus, and they are clearly excited to get to work.
"What does it take to grow plants?" Cain asks. Nearly every hand shoots up.
"Water," yells out a boy wearing a red Rangers jacket. "Sun," adds a towheaded first-grader with a bowl haircut.
The hands slowly lower; all but one. A blond girl bites her lip and extends her arm as far as she can. When Cain doesn't call on her, the girl finally blurts out, "Yesterday I planted zucchini at my house."
Cain smiles, nods her head and announces, "Today we are planting cabbage."
A surprisingly loud cheer goes up, as if it has just been announced that the Easter Bunny will make a special visit to the school. The boy in the Rangers jacket high-fives his buddy.
"We will grow about 1,600 heads of cabbage here," Cain informs her charges. "That's more than students at your school. And, they will grow as big as your head."
It is early in the growing season and the acre-wide field is mostly blank dirt, except two short rows of ankle-high spinach that another school group recently planted. Cain points to the small bushy green bundles and tells a girl wearing an immaculate white jacket and matching white stockings: "You can taste some, if you want."
The first-grader bends down gingerly, pulls off a spinach leaf and nibbles on it. When Cain turns her back to lead some of the students to a mulch pile, the girl bends over and grabs another clump. And then another. She smiles broadly, showing a missing front tooth.
"I just love spinach," she announces.
A whole movement
The statistics are as familiar as they are troubling. America's schoolchildren are inactive, eating poorly and getting fat. Diabetes rates are soaring, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that one-third of American children are obese.
Not unrelated, the National Restaurant Association reports that, on a typical day, about 30% of adolescents in the U.S. consume at least one meal from a fast-food joint.
But a small group of educators believe that school gardens - or, more broadly, outdoor education - may help fix these problems.
"A lot of funding has been going into anti-obesity efforts and creating better lifestyles for kids," says Martin. "School gardens have become a tool for that."
Martin, lean and tall, earned a graduate degree in Public Policy and Urban Planning from the UW-Madison, then stepped out of the workforce for several years to raise her son and daughter. During that time, she teamed up with another parent to plot the school garden at Midvale, also recruiting a dad who owned a landscaping company.
"There's been a whole movement reconnecting students to active learning," Martin explains. "All these pieces are coming together."
Teachers everywhere are looking for new ways to actively engage students - and not only for obvious topics like botany and nutrition, but also science, basic economics and cultural sensitivities.
The garden at Midvale recently hosted a plant sale to finance garden expenses and is now adding a plot to represent foods from the various ethnic groups that make up its diverse student body, including southeast Asian, African American and Latino students.
Because school gardens are not managed directly by the Madison Metropolitan School District, there is no official count as to how many exist, but it is estimated there are now about 20 active school gardens, twice as many as two years ago. And proponents believe the acreage and kids served will double again in the next two years.
"There is just so much happening," says Martin. "Every day I hear more and more."
Good food makes better kids
School gardens are proven successes, in more ways than one.
During the 2009-10 school year, at Milwaukee's Harley Environmental Elementary - a school that centers its curriculum on gardening - third-graders performed considerably higher than the Milwaukee school district average on math and reading comprehension tests.
And studies in California, where schools have long integrated gardens into the curriculum, show long-term positive effects on eating habits, "significantly increasing" preference for vegetables, and "strong demonstrated improvements in knowledge and behavior."
There seems to be no single reason for the quick rise in popularity and prevalence of school gardens in Madison and across the country. But perhaps the most public proponent of school gardens is the nation's so-called mom-in-chief, Michelle Obama.
During her first year at the White House, Obama invited local elementary students to plant a garden. She's pushed to improve child nutrition, recruiting celebrities as varied as New York Yankees and Sesame Street characters, as well as Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Even so, federal policy remains largely unformed and unfunded, with the real work being done at the local level.
Take what's happening at Van Hise elementary, on Madison's near west side.
Just 10 feet from the school, five raised beds and another four plots fill in a stretch of turf directly adjacent to a sloping hill. At the far edge, a 10-foot windmill decorated like a sunflower turns steadily. Foot-high tree stumps are set out as stools.
All of this has happened since last May, when a parent approached principal Peg Keeler about creating a school garden. Though not a gardener herself, Keeler immediately embraced the idea.
"We just went with it," she says, seeing it as a way to help her school "go from good to great."
Van Hise fares well on test scores and serves families that tend to be well educated and financially stable - two factors often correlated with better health habits. But the garden has nonetheless been an added benefit.
"It has been great for our students who have trouble staying engaged," she says. "This becomes a place for kids to have their sensory breaks."
As if on cue, while Keeler and I are talking, a young boy storms around the corner. His face is red with anger and frustration. He just had a fight with his reading buddy. He stomps his feet.
Keeler walks calmly over to the boy, bends and whispers into his ear. "Would you like to dig in the dirt?" she asks, pointing toward a tall pile of mulch.
The boy calms down, nods and announces, "For 10 minutes." He picks up a plastic shovel and begins to load a small wheelbarrow. "I'd like it to be quiet," he requests.
Although the idea for the garden came from one parent, Keeler has gathered support from many people. The decision on what to plant is made by the students. A neighbor designed the sunflower windmill.
And Whole Foods and UW Health gave the school "seed money," says Keeler, who quickly apologizes for the garden-centric pun. She hesitates for a moment, then adds, "It really is a grassroots effort, though."
How to serve everyone
Ironically, the biggest challenge for school gardens is how to make them sustainable. Although the school district owns the land and signs off on school gardens, it doesn't provide active support.
The school district is understandably wary. Staff and teacher workloads are already heavy without adding garden caretaking to the jobs-to-be-done list. Moreover, the growing season stretches mainly over the summertime, when teachers and students are absent.
Some schools have recruited nearby neighbors to weed and water; at other schools, teachers and parents volunteer.
"[The school district] wanted to know how we will maintain the garden," explains Keeler. "Our goal, we told them, is to build ownership so it doesn't become an old weedy place."
Most school gardens consist of one or more plots on school grounds, with students and teachers managing the upkeep, funded by plant sales and small grants.
Another interesting model is Badger Rock Charter Middle School, scheduled to open this fall. This charter school takes the concept a giant leap forward, placing gardening and food at the center of the school curriculum.
"Most schools are big and the garden is small," says Mark Wagler, who chairs the school's curriculum committee. "This is the other way around."
The school will have an on-site gardener and a greenhouse for the winter months. Located at the intersection of Badger and Rimrock roads, a block south of the Beltline, it primarily will serve low-income families nearby. When applications were accepted in April, the 50 spots filled up quickly; there already is a waiting list.
In addition to the 20 school gardens located onsite, a few other models have been established. Most notably, Community GroundWorks maintains two multi-acre plots with year-round staff and volunteers. They serve 11 schools and nearly 1,000 students.
"We don't want to see school gardens competing with each other for funding and resources," says Nathan Larson, who runs Community GroundWorks' education programs. "Instead we are looking at all the children in Madison, and how can we create a foundation that serves everyone."
Toward that end, in July Community GroundWorks will host a weeklong training program for K-12 teachers, to help them to better integrate gardening into their lesson plans.
Also, earlier this spring, about two dozen educators and parents formed a loosely organized Garden Coalition. The group intends to provide a focal point for school gardens in Madison and create a platform to share successful models and lesson plans. In June, it will hold its second meeting and begin to formalize the organization.
One of the co-founders, Mary Michaud, is also the parent who brought the idea for a garden to Van Hise. In her professional capacity, Michaud works as a consultant for public health organizations. She acutely understands the importance of creating infrastructure. But she also has a more fundamental belief as to why school gardens will continue to prosper and increasingly become part of the school curriculum.
"Sure, I just happened to have 20 years of grant-writing experience," says Michaud, explaining why the Van Hise garden so quickly pulled together funding. "But what really makes it successful is that the kids are completely ape-shit about it. Even the wallflower kids get in there and pull out worms."
Michaud is sitting in the garden that she helped create. "People say, 'oh, it's a fad,'" she continues, looking around at the sunflower windmill, the garden plots and the pile of mulch waiting to be spread. "But kids will never grow tired of this."
On Thursday, May 26, Blackhawk Middle School plans to build a garden in a day. In June, the Garden Coalition will host its second meeting for educators. For more information, contact Rachel Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org. To sign up for Community GroundWorks' "Garden-Based Learning From the Ground Up" seminar in July, contact email@example.com.