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DPS students gather around a lettuce bed. —Photo courtesy of McCall Burau of Lucky Malone Photography

The Kitchen Community’s Learning Gardens Take Root

These spaces are designed around sustainability, health, and community engagement. Students can't get enough of the gardens, and neither can we. 

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For many, gathering around the table for dinner constitutes the only few free moments to eliminate distractions and spend quality time together as a family. For others, grabbing a bite and some coffee is the best way to catch up with a friend. No matter how you look at it, food seems to be at the epicenter of human interactions. It draws us together.

Unfortunately, the importance of food is traditionally not instilled at a young age—nutrition education has historically been limited. Bad eating habits nurtured from childhood result in obesity, diabetes, and other life-long health problems.

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That’s where The Kitchen Community comes in. Founded in 2011 by Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson, owners of the farm-to-table restaurant family, this group strives to fight that epidemic head on, not with a set and enforced nutrition curriculum, but with an interactive space that sparks children’s imaginations and spurs a respect for real, healthy food. These spaces are called Learning Gardens, and unlike most school gardens, which are sequestered in a low-traffic corner and barricaded by a fence, these ones are designed for interaction.

“They’re meant to be a play space, a learning space, a teacher space, and a space to engage,” says Sean VanBerschot, newly appointed president of The Kitchen Community. “The goal is to connect the students to real food and empower them to make good decisions.”

In the four years since The Kitchen Community was founded, they have managed to install more than 250 Learning Gardens across the country, primarily in high-risk areas. “There’s a ton of research about garden-based education and the impact it has for improving graduation rates and test scores,” says VanBerschot. “If that’s the ultimate world we want to live in, we have to engage the community and give people access to this understanding now.”

In fact, the Learning Gardens are already making a tangible difference in areas where they’ve been implemented (primarily Los Angeles, Memphis, Chicago, and the Greater Denver Area), reaching more than 140,000 students per day. According to VanBerschot, the students can’t get enough of the gardens. Not only are they being implemented as a space to learn about the growth of produce and farm-to-table practices, but many have become a hang-out—a place to gather with classmates during breaks, to play, chat, and check on the growing vegetables.

“They’re a beautiful place to be,” he says. “The gardens are filled with marigolds, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, beets, carrots, potatoes, you name it. What we grow just depends on the climate.”

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These gardens are truly a space designed to serve the entire community—teachers, students, families, and visitors. Thus far, 47 Learning Gardens have been implemented in Colorado (21 in the Denver Public Schools system alone). The last one for the year opened in a school in Fort Collins this week, but the plan doesn’t stop there.

“The idea is rooted in sustainability, nutrition, health, commerce, and community, both globally and locally, but the differences are truly seen when we work at scale,” says VanBerschot. The Kitchen Community plans to continue sprouting learning gardens in Colorado, aiming to hit 100 by the end of next year. There are still millions of children around the world without access to this vital understanding, but as far as we can see, the strong roots of the Kitchen Community are strengthening our city from the ground up.

Looking for a learning garden at your school? Visit thekitchencommunity.org.

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