Sarah Holway awoke one morning to a surprise: The art teacher’s D.C. school had been selected to help first lady Michelle Obama break ground later that day on a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House.
Holway was running an elementary school garden, and she spent much of her time convincing co-workers how good such a program could be for the school. She made sure she was on that school bus to the White House on March 20, 2009, and she listened to the first lady tell the fifth-graders about the benefits of fresh and organic food - a concept then associated with elites and far from the mainstream.
“I knew school gardens were important, and I knew it felt like the right thing to do,” Holway said. “But that experience of the first lady doing it and highlighting its importance validated my instincts.”
Holway later told a friend, Lauren Shweder Biel about the experience. Biel had been trying to start a neighborhood farmers market in northwest D.C. Together, they decided to start an organization that would propel the nascent school garden movement in the nation’s capital to reach more children.
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DC Greens, which they founded in 2009, now has a multimillion-dollar annual budget and 12 full-time employees who are involved in many of the city’s healthful-food access programs, including a training program for school garden coordinators.
As Michelle Obama prepares to leave the White House, DC Greens wants to ensure that the legacy of her “Let’s Move” campaign - which aims to address the nation’s obesity problem - resonates in the District long after the Obama presidency’s end.
“With Michelle Obama, it became a sexy thing to put gardens in schools, but people weren’t thinking how best they can be used, how they can be incorporated into the curriculum,” Holway said.
Soon after they started DC Greens, Biel and Holway testified before the Washington, D.C., City Council in favor of a school gardens component in the 2010 D.C. Healthy Schools Act.
The act passed and funded a full-time school garden specialist at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. That coordinator doles out grants for D.C. public and charter schools to have gardening programs, even allocating money so some schools can hire coordinators of their own. DC Greens has had a contract with OSSE to train the coordinators in gardening techniques, how to incorporate the garden into various class subjects and how to teach children the importance of healthful food.
The number of schools with gardens in the District has grown from 82 in 2011 to 127 in 2016, according to OSSE data.
“When I spoke to teachers and administrators, it used to be really hard to convince them to build a school garden. I don’t see a whole lot of that anymore, and that’s in large part because of what’s happening at the White House,” said Sam Ullery, OSSE’s school garden specialist. “We’ve been working with DC Greens to ensure that school gardens are woven into the school and are an important part of the day for students.”
DC Greens now has distinct education, access and policy components. It started “School Garden Markets,” where children sell the produce grown on school grounds and other produce that DC Greens grows on its own farm.
DC Greens has a nearly one-acre farm in the District. The land serves as Walker-Jones’s school garden, and DC Greens also uses it as a space to train educators and community residents. The farm grows kale, okra, asparagus, blueberries and more.
To help offset costs, some of the produce and flowers are sold to high-end restaurants in D.C. such as Rose’s Luxury. The Dabney uses borage flowers - sometimes called starflowers - from the farm to adorn its desserts.
DC Greens also operates the city’s “Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program,” through which Unity Health Care prescribes fruits and vegetables to low-income patients. Those patients can take the prescriptions to designated places where they can collect their produce.
Council member Mary Cheh, who crafted the D.C. Healthy Schools Act, said the school garden portion of the legislation has been one of its most successful components. She said the legislation was prepared before the Obamas moved into the White House but that the first lady’s work amplified the message of the bill. And DC Greens has helped ensure that the local schools most effectively leverage the resources made available through the legislation.
“It’s just been a wonderful experience for everyone. I’ve been amazed by how successful it’s been,” Cheh said. “With any kind of legislation, you really want to have people out there who push it.”
DC Greens will start 2017 with a mixture of local and federal grants and private donations and sponsorships, giving the organization its biggest budget yet - $2.3 million. Holway and Biel say that District teachers involved in school gardens are no longer working in isolation, and they’ve built a network of local educators involved in school nutrition. In the past seven years, they say, school gardens have evolved from small patches of inconsistently plowed land that science teachers would use to teach children about plants and have become gardens that teach children about healthy living, science and social sciences.
“D.C. has one of the strongest school garden programs in the country, and when you trace it back, the galvanizing of it began with the planting of the first White House garden,” Biel said.