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Remembering the Earth, Remembering Ourselves: School-based Gardening, a Reflection.

By Kayla MacLachlan, AMI Alumna

“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil, is to forget ourselves.” - Mahandas K. Gandhi

The Allegheny Mountain Institute, while seemingly simple in its ethos, is undoubtedly a complex organization. While food certainly lives at our core, the different programs and projects that we manage can make our humble 501c3 quite difficult to explain. From the Farm Fellowship in Highland County, to the AMI Urban Farm at VSDB in Staunton, from the placement-based Senior Fellowship, to our community workshops and events, understanding all of the pieces as something cohesive has its challenges, even from within.

As a person who has been with the organization for the past four years – both as a Fellow and now a staff member (wait....what's a Fellow? -- read on), I think that Ghandi’s quote eloquently portrays the philosophy behind it all. AMI was founded under the basic idea that if we train folks how to grow their own food, then they can go out into our region’s communities and teach others to do the same. A simple concept that, over time, has proved itself not as easy as we might think. In this attempt to “grow food and build community,” as an organization, we have experienced both successes, as well as failures. Like anything in life, however, when things don’t go as planned, we learn from them. Alternately, when things work out well, they’re worth celebrating.

The AMI Urban Farm at VSDB is a prime example (in my opinion) of one of our organization’s greatest successes. It is a project that seamlessly ties both aspects of our Fellowship together – Fellows learn garden and food production skills on "the mountain" for six months (Apr – Nov) and then transfer those skills over to the VSDB project the following year (Jan – Dec). In just over two years, our Project Manager Trevor Piersol (along with the support from our community, Senior Fellows, VSDB, and staff) has totally transformed a once vacant lot into a beautiful, diverse, 3-acre school-based farm where students are able to make connections to the land, plants, animals and, ultimately, where their food is coming from. Another added perk is that a percentage of the food grown is then served in the school’s cafeteria, so the students are lucky to truly experience the full spectrum of seed-to-plate. And it goes without saying that this model of school-based farming and gardening is certainly on the rise.

Last week, I had the pleasure of accompanying our Senior Fellows during a cohort workday at the Highland County Public Schools’ garden. From its community-crafted raised beds, to its heated green house, from its perennial growing space, to its nutrient rich compost pile; from its knowledgeable teachers and volunteers, to its curious and energetic students, the Highland County Public School has everything in place for a flourishing school-based gardening program. Yet without a full-time person fully dedicated to garden-based education, it was apparent that the programming still had its challenges and a fair amount of opportunity for growth.

Under the leadership of Paxton Grant (Virginia Cooperative Extension) and Thea Klein-Mayer (The Highland Center), we spent the day planting onions and potatoes with students, potting up plants, and renovating the raised beds inside the greenhouse. It didn’t feel good to do the work, it felt great - and I know the students shared a similar sentiment. I’ll echo the wise words of Kahlil Gibran here in saying that, “work is love made visible.” Out in the garden, breathing in fresh air, there was no doubt – even with a group of 4th graders, planting taters in the pattering rain.

As a teacher, when I see a student plant a potato and hear her say, “I just love gardening, it is soooooooo much fun!” then I think we’ve hit a sweet spot. Perhaps I’m idealistic here in thinking that ALL schools should have some-sort of garden program (I’m certainly sensitive to "attached strings" involved), but know that my idealism comes from the fact that I’ve always been a dreamer. In fact, as a young student I was taught to “reach for the stars.” Well, in doing so, I have found that my stars exist beneath the ground, where I dig for life - remembering the soil, the Earth, and ultimately myself. What a gift to share that same passion with others!

If we re-visit Ghandi’s quote and think, “to forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil, is to forget ourselves,” then perhaps it is high time that more work be done to bring the simplicity of growing food to those that need it most – to those who are just starting out in life, to those that won’t ever have the opportunity to forget the soil, because the words SOIL, EARTH, HEALTH, and FOOD, have become mainstays of their education (and hence their vocabulary).

I pray that someday gardening, food, nutrition, and ecological-based education will be as high a priority as the tested subjects we hear so much about. Luckily for us local folks, there is good news! With organizations like AMI, The Highland Center, Project Grows, VCE, City School Yard Garden, Dr. Tamra Willis, Amanda Warren and other passionate folks – the Farm-to-School movement is gaining momentum in our region.

When it comes to the wellbeing of our Earth and our children, education is key. Let us not forget.

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