Learning Gardens: Connecting Kids to Real Food

October 2012

“Mom, can we get some kale, can we, can we? Pleeeaaaaase.” Although this sounds like fiction—and a far cry from the Cocoa Puffs I begged for as a child—it’s a true request. One that’s recounted by Kimbal Musk, co-founder of the Kitchen [Community], a nonprofit designed by the Kitchen restaurants to bring outdoor vegetable gardens to schoolyards and community spaces. The goal of these “Learning Gardens” is to connect children to real and nutritious foods. Kids nurture plants from start to finish: They plant seeds, tend to seedlings as they grow, harvest them when they’re ripe, and facilitate in their sale or consumption.

But the gardens have a greater intention than simply teaching children about plant cycles. They are designed to fundamentally alter the way today’s youth approaches food. Certainly this is not the first time you’ve heard of our nation’s obesity epidemic, but a review of the facts and growth rates—especially among children—is sobering. At 27 percent, Colorado’s rate of overweight and obese children is below the national average, but it may not stay there for long. Rates climbed 23 percent between 2003 and 2007, making Colorado’s childhood obesity rates the nation’s second fastest increase behind Nevada.

Musk concedes that gardens for children is not a new idea. He witnessed them at his own children’s Montessori schools, and he was already supporting the concept through the Growe Foundation, a nonprofit with a like-minded vision. The difference with the Kitchen [Community]’s Learning Gardens, he explains, is the pace. While other programs installed two gardens a year (meaning it would take 17 years to outfit elementary schools in Boulder county alone), Musk wanted to accelerate the outcome. “The obesity crisis is today, not tomorrow. Our goal is to reach these children as quickly as possible and we need as much help as we can get,” he says.

With funding from sponsors JP Morgan Chase and the Anschutz Foundation (as well as funds raised by the individual schools and community programs), Musk’s goal is to build 180 Learning Gardens across the country by the end of 2013—60 in Colorado, 60 in Chicago, and 60 spread throughout the country. Although cost varies dramatically, the average price tag of a garden is $12,500. As of today, 10 Learning Gardens have already been installed in Colorado schools and 15 more have sprouted up across the nation. Seventeen new Colorado gardens are slated for completion by spring (nine of which will be finished this month).

Musk’s vision is working: The gardens are connecting children to real and nutritious food while changing attitudes towards it. The fourth grader begging his mother for kale is proof. That story was relayed to Musk by a mother who did not know what kale was before her son asked for it.

Get Involved: To apply for a garden at your school or community space, visit learninggardens.org. Or donate by dining at the Kitchen (Denver or Boulder) during the restaurants' Monday night community dinners. Twenty percent of all sales from the family-style four-course meals ($35) go to planting local school gardens (funds raised in Denver or Boulder benefit their respective neighborhoods).

The above photo, provided by the Kitchen [Community], shows Musk (left) and Governor John Hickenlooper (right) assisting students at Schmitt Elementary School planting their Learning Garden on September 24, 2012.