Despite the very wet spring and then hot, dry St. Louis summer, the garden project at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis, Illinois is doing great. On a visit there mid-July, representatives of FamilyFarms Charities were thrilled to see groups of students diligently weeding and caring plants. Using hoes, trowels, and other garden tools provided by our group, and wearing plastic bags over their shoes to avoid dirt, summer camp participants enthusiastically worked and even picked some of the fruits of their labor. While we were there, they picked cabbages, cherry tomatoes, ears of corn (just a couple), and some peppers. They already had a bag of broccoli in the freezer which they proudly showed us. The fruit trees are doing well, but we will provide additional hoses to make watering them a little easier. Berry bushes were also doing well, but strawberries were eaten by deer or rabbits before they could be harvested. Some additional netting or fencing may be required along the bottom of the main fence to keep rabbits out.
The best result we witnessed during our visit to the garden today was the excitement of the kids and their understanding of where food comes from. Several younger participants voiced their amazement that food comes from plants and those plants come out of the ground. When corn was husked for them to see the kernels inside, some exclaimed, “That’s corn!” One young student stood in the middle of the garden, looked all around, and said, “Where’s the food?” Others picked cherry tomatoes and eagerly asked, “Can we eat these now?” They were told to wait until they are washed; they will get to eat several of the garden products in their chef’s salad at the center this week. Won’t that be great?
The very positive response of the summer camp participants has prompted staff and administrators at the center to begin plans for continuing the garden project into the fall and over the winter in preparation for next summer’s garden project. They plan to start a Garden Club of the most interested among summer camp participants. Those Club members will plan for next summer’s garden and will continue to learn about gardening over the winter months. They will have a garden project (indoors or in a greenhouse) to allow on-going learning through participation and, if possible, will take a field trip to visit a farm in their area at harvest time. In addition, plans are being made to train next summer’s teachers in the use of the gardening curriculum we provided so it can be put to more effective use next summer.
We all agreed this summer was a valuable learning experience for all of us and a debriefing and teacher training session planned for mid-August will be extremely valuable as we make plans for the winter months and the summer 2014 garden project. Along with the classroom curriculum and garden projects, a field trip is being planned for those summer camp participants to visit a farm. It’s clear that this summer’s urban garden project at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis was the start of a valuable eye-opening experience for many urban youth. They have had their first taste of gardening and have begun to experience the excitement of learning the origins of their food. And that is what this project is all about.