Proposal Paper: Isabella Gesino

Proposal Paper: Isabella Gesino

I. Introduction

I spent my summers in my grandpa’s garden, always ripe with swollen cherry tomatoes and sweet peppers, basking in the scent of sharp basil. Here, I learned my love for being outside and the miracle of fostering new growth from seed to plant. It was my green-thumbed grandfather who encouraged me to volunteer with him at Giving Gardens in the Spring of 2021. Fresh after a year of COVID, it was a new non-profit program that I never knew my town needed. A neighbors-helping-neighbors program, the East Lyme Giving Garden grows fresh produce to donate to local food pantries. It is a 501(c)3 organization, purely volunteer-based and funded by local companies who sponsor and donate services from shovels to water irrigation. I joined purely through my love of the outdoors and gardening, but through my involvement, became aware of a bigger issue facing my community: food insecurity. It never occurred to me that such a problem existed in a community as affluent as mine. Just 2 years ago at the peak of COVID, 45,700 of 268,800 people in New London County were food insecure. Children and adults that lived minutes from me had little to no access to fresh vegetables and fruits, a concept that seemed unreal to me. Food insecurity is a far more significant issue than many people understand, and I want to change that. While I am undecided on a future career, I am passionate about helping people and the Earth. I would like to help educate people on this issue and delve into new ways to address food insecurity. If there were more volunteer-based programs in small communities like mine that helped produce fresh food for those less fortunate, these smaller branches could lead to a huge change and impact people in a positive way, no matter their economic status.

II.  Literary Review 

While the U.S stands as one of the most affluent countries in the world, a huge problem lies in our homeland. 38 million citizens are food insecure in the U.S, 12 million of those being children (feedingac.org). In small and large communities, especially those in urban areas, schools have taken it upon themselves to help combat the issue of food insecurity through the integration of community gardens on school campuses.

  • Launched more than a decade ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, the City Schoolyard Gardens operate on the grounds of many different schools in the city of Charlottesville. Altogether, these shared garden plots reach 3,500 students. Kids are able to engage with the garden in all different ways, with elementary schoolers planting, harvesting, and cooking with the foods grown here. At the more advanced level, specialized high school courses are offered in areas like urban farming, where kids can engage in the organization and care for the gardens. These gardens educate children on the growing and harvesting of fresh food and encourage more mindful eating practices (less food waste). These gardens were implemented to combat the food insecurity that 17% of residents in Charlottesville face. Just within the district, 52% of children at these schools are on the free/reduced lunch price.
  • In the Fall of 2012, students at White Station High School (one of the largest schools in Memphis, Tennessee), had an idea to create a community garden. Over 3 months a program of over 70 students fundraised to earn 5,000 dollars and negotiated with faculties and teachers in order to start their new garden. 2 years later, kids and local volunteers came together to build plant beds and compost piles. Today the garden is totally student-run and has 16 plots, a herb spiral planting area, and outdoor seating. Gardening lessons are taught by local farmers as a volunteer program through Memphis Area Master Gardeners and other parents. All produce is given back to high school student families, as 30% of pupils at this Title 1 school qualify for free lunches. After-school clubs and organizations also help to maintain and run the garden to keep it running smoothly.
  • The South Bronx (New York) is notorious for its food deserts, and fresh alternatives are hard to be found in such a deep urban setting. At the University Heights High School,  a community garden was founded in 2011. This high school garden is maintained mostly by the students in the garden club and supervised by part-time gardener Junior Schouten. In order to start up the garden, University Heights received two 2000-dollar grants from GrowNYC and Nature Works Everywhere. In the summer, the garden is maintained by paid students, who are employed for summer jobs. Besides that, the garden is also utilized as a teaching tool for the Parks Department to educate the public on plant care. The mission of this garden is to expose students to growing fresh food and improving their health and nutrition. This garden has 11 raised beds, a compost bin, and a rainwater catchment from the roof, and maintains pollinators through the growth of wildflowers. All produce is given to students, donated to pantries and soup kitchens, and can also be purchased by the school staff.  Students in a variety of classes can apply their education to the garden in different ways. For instance, kids in “physical commuting class have designed and are building a computer-driven self-watering system”. Other classes like art, science, advisory, and math have been able to use the plots as areas of projects or further research in the form of garden maintenance like soil testing, watering, spreading compost, and more. 

Instead of building a community garden on ELHS land, the policy that I propose involves integrating a greenhouse and a working partnership between the East Lyme Giving Garden and ELHS. This program would work to educate students about horticulture and address food insecurity in our community.

III. Proposal

Just across school grounds, we have an amazing untapped resource; the East Lyme Giving Gardens located at 4 Church Lane, in East Lyme. The ELGG is a non-profit community garden that grows fresh produce for local food pantries, run fully by volunteers. For ELHS students to learn more about food insecurity, as well as build valuable skills like cultivating our own backyard gardens, I propose that East Lyme High School and the ELGG join in a dual partnership. Our partnership would include growing seedlings for the East Lyme Giving Garden, and in return, students would work on the ELGG campus to cultivate the seeds and learn more about sustainable agriculture. In order to grow seedlings, the ELHS would fund the construction of a greenhouse on the ELGG property. This would serve as an “outdoor classroom” of sorts for students to participate in the cultivation of new crops. To do this, a half-year mandatory horticulture class would be implemented into the school curriculum for all freshmen, and the greenhouse would serve as an optional classroom tool for other classes as well. If this project was approved, the following actions would commence.

  1. Finding a plot of land to construct and maintain the workings of a greenhouse. 
  • The greenhouse will stand at 16 x 24 sq. ft. on the property of the Giving Gardens. The construction of the greenhouse would take around 2 weeks to complete, depending on how many volunteers would pitch in to complete construction. The greenhouse assembly would fall in the summertime so that more students could aid in the building of the structure. More specific cost and building plan details can be found in Appendix A.
  •  In order for the greenhouse to function, there needs to be an available source of power and irrigation. Luckily, the East Lyme Giving Garden has already been built to include the necessary features that a greenhouse would need to function. The most economically viable solution would be to construct the greenhouse on this property. Overall cost savings would stem from using the existing water and electricity hookups available at the ELGG. Besides that, the ELGG would share responsibility for maintaining the structure in partnership with the school. 
  • The ELGG hosts a well and irrigation lines, meaning that there is an available water source for greenhouse access.  Not only that, but the ELGG has a local source of electricity and wifi, that was implemented through trenches and a pole that extends power lines from the street into the garden. This means that there are already sources of electricity and water that can be easily hooked up to a greenhouse. 
  • Having the greenhouse on the ELGG campus allows for dual-use for students and ELGG volunteers. There would be optimal space in the greenhouse to use for other plants, in addition to the students’ plantings as well.  
  1. Integrating the greenhouse and ELGG into the school curriculum.
  •  For students at ELHS, we would offer a mandatory half-year for freshmen that involves the growing and maintenance of the produce. These horticulture and nutrition classes would run semester-long, 2x a year. No matter the time of the year the elective runs, students will be able to grow seedlings and get hands-on experience right in the garden adjacent to the greenhouse (either from September to January, or January to June). 
  • Not only that, but this garden would be built into the curriculum of many other classes and serve as a teaching tool for students. Involvement in this garden would be used to boost resumes as a source of community service for high schoolers, integrated right into their schedules. The care of these seedlings would be unified into students’ education, as they get to learn about caring for plants, the benefits of community service, and current food issues such as insecurity and the future of sustainability.

3.  Finding mentors to teach and help start up the greenhouse cultivation process of seedlings. At present, the East Lyme Giving Garden is run by volunteers, most of who have personal experience growing vegetables. For my proposed plan, I would suggest the following.

  • The duty of integrating the ELHS students and ELGG program would be added to a certified ELHS teacher, such as AP Environmental teacher Mrs. Ashburn. Mrs. Ashburn would work closely with Penny Heller, the Lead Gardener for the Vocational Agriculture Program at Ledyard High school. Penny Heller would be willing to help educate students here at ELHS and assist Mrs. Ashburn in the day-to-day running of the horticulture classes until they are running efficiently. Penny and her husband Ray Heller are both certified Master Gardeners (certified through a program run at UConn by the Dept. of Agriculture) and have volunteered to help start up the East Lyme High school greenhouse. Heller’s involvement would involve mentoring teachers teaching the half-year horticulture class and the basics of integrating gardening into classroom education.
  •  Part of the half-year horticulture class would include hosting experienced volunteers who are involved in running the East Lyme Giving Garden to give introductory talks to students and assist in educating in the outdoor processes of the class (planting, proper seedling care, etc.). ELGG volunteers would provide follow-up guidance to students who would be completing an essentially “independent study” (being responsible for growing their own crops) when working in the greenhouse and Giving Garden. Students would then be able to set up botanical or other experiences in the greenhouse, as well as learn how to shepherd seedlings out.

4. The cultivation and growing of seedlings. 

  • All seedlings would be grown from January to May 1st in the greenhouse, where seedlings would then be hardened off (getting used to the outdoors) for the first two weeks. Then, kids would help plant the seedlings and cultivate them into the ELGG. 

5. Addressing the construction costs.

  • According to the Director of Garden Management at the ELGG Liz Farley, the costs of materials and overall construction of a high-quality greenhouse would fall around 20,000$, which accounts for the cost of the greenhouse and other extraneous materials such as benches, seeds, misting installations, etc. We would be looking into funding the building of an approximately 380 sq. ft. greenhouse (16 x 24 sq. ft), that will be freestanding on the grounds of the ELGG. It will function with access to irrigation and electricity to ensure that seedlings will have the optimum conditions to grow. 
  • There are many organizations that support the development of hands-on education programs. A local grant program that we would focus on gaining funds from would-be  Sustainable CT. Here, East Lyme High School and the ELGG can apply for grants to start up a greenhouse project. Another option that would be beneficial in raising money would be large-scale fundraisers through clubs and student organizations. 

IV. Justification

A partnership between ELGG and the construction of a greenhouse should be integrated into East Lyme High school for many reasons. 1. People in our close community are food insecure, even in affluent communities, and it is an issue that needs to be better addressed. 2. It is important to educate students about the cultivation of healthy crops and the benefits of regenerative farming versus industrial farming. Through this class, students will better understand these sustainable farming values through hands-on learning and will gain the ability to cultivate their own backyard gardens. 3. As the world population increases, the food deserts nearby increase for people with fewer financial resources; meaning they have poor access to fresh food (more fast or prepackaged food).  It is important to teach the public (especially the next generations) about the cultivation of healthy crops and the benefits of regenerative farming versus industrial farming. This class will also address nutrition and conscious meal planning and preparation.

When surveying teachers, some of their main concerns included budget/ price, summer break (who would tend to the garden?), benefits to students, and how the program would keep students busy in the winter months (see Appendix H).

To address budget concerns, there are many ways in which a fundraising goal would be achieved.

  •  Funding can be addressed in a multitude of ways. For instance, the ELGG was started through a Sustainable CT grant and crowdfunding. Therefore, the main grant we would focus on achieving would be through Sustainable CT as well. This statewide organization looks to fund community outreach programs for education or sustainable living. According to the Sustainable CT Website,

Sustainable CT’s Community Match Fund is an innovative program that provides fast, flexible funding and support for engaging your community on wide-ranging sustainability projects. Eligible projects receive dollar-for-dollar matching funds from Sustainable CT. Anyone in a Sustainable CT registered municipality can participate in this program to implement highly visible projects to improve their communities. Municipalities, nonprofits, community groups, schools, libraries, and individual residents can all propose projects and double their impact with our match funding. 

  •  So, if ELHS reached a goal of 10,000$ through crowdfunding, the rest of the money could be gained through the Sustainable CT Match Fund. 
  • Student organizations and class fundraisers would also help to raise money to fund a greenhouse. Other ideas include sports game concessions, bake sales, restaurant fundraisers, car washes, and school events like shows or sports games where ticket proceeds go to the greenhouse fund.
  •  Another source of donations and materials can be achieved through sponsors, ranging from local businesses such as banks and construction companies. Requesting material donations (insulation, shovels, watering tools, gloves, etc)  from local big box companies such as Home Depot and Lowes would help to gain extra gardening tools for the ELHS student greenhouse program.

Another concern expressed by staff at ELHS was the lack of volunteers during summer break, but this concern is unfounded for a few reasons.

  • In the summer, there is already a solid base of volunteers to help farm and cultivate the crops at ELGG, so kids on summer break would not be affected. High school students who enjoy working in the Giving Garden will be welcome to continue their volunteer work over the summer break, but it will not be mandatory for any student. The greenhouse that will grow seedlings will only operate during school months (January – May), so it will not be affected by a lack of volunteers.

There are many benefits that would come with having a greenhouse on campus for students and teachers.  More than 90% of teachers across different subjects surveyed at ELHS agreed that a greenhouse and garden would be an interesting and immersive learning experience for students (See Appendix C).

  • Teachers can use this partnership and greenhouse in order to add hands-on learning into their own classes. Simultaneously, students can gain in-depth knowledge and education about learning how to care for plants, food, insecurity, and the impact of climate change and industrial farming. Not only that, but through this program, kids can add their volunteer work as a part of their resume for college applications. This greenhouse would be integrated into school in a number of different ways, such as culinary classes, computer programming, physical education, an after-school club, AP environmental, math class, science classes, biotech, art classes, and volunteer hours for current students/clubs. 
  • Teachers of all ranges of classes have come up with many ways to take advantage of this greenhouse within their curriculum. Examples include, but are not limited to;  keeping statistics on the types of food grown, distribution, work hours, scheduling, and weather impacts, quadratic word problems and math modeling, nutrition, modeling “victory gardens” from WW1 and WW2, vocabulary, reading about gardens and target language, seminars of food issues in communities, healthy vs. unhealthy eating habits, plant identification, healthy eating habits, construction, and mental health benefits (Appendix B).

The greenhouse and partnership will offer a half-year-long, extensive learning experience for freshman students who participate in the mandatory horticulture class. Besides that, the greenhouse learning materials can be integrated into any class at any time of the year.

  • A greenhouse would allow for kids to be active in hands-on learning no matter the time of year. In the winter months, the greenhouse will be in operation (November-March), so plant cultivation will still be available, while the Giving Garden is out of operation. In the fall (September – early November) and spring (late March – June) kids would be active outdoors. No matter what semester a freshman takes the class, they will still be able to work with plants, from seedlings to vegetables.

A horticulture class would be a worthwhile and fulfilling class for many reasons. The curriculum and material taught will allow students to pursue a unique learning experience. Students will gain insight into the growing problem of food insecurity the world faces as climate change and the human population increase. Not only do teachers show a demonstrated interest in this class, but so do fellow students across ELHS, with 86.2 % of kids agreeing that there should be an optional or mandatory class for horticulture at the high school (Appendix E).

  • There will be three main parts to this horticulture class, these being community outreach, nutrition education, and the understanding of the global natural systems and the impacts of our current industrial farming practices on the Earth. To understand the root of food insecurity, the class will emphasize methods of preserving food, growing maximum crops efficiently, and limiting food waste in landfills. Students will also gain a comprehensive knowledge of the importance of fresh produce and the proper preparation of food for maximum consumption.
  • This class will combine hands-on and classroom work to tackle real-world problems involving food insecurity, food deserts, and growing food sustainability. This will be accomplished through teaching regenerative farming practices, including methods that protect the soil and avoid soil exhaustion. By reverting back to ancestral farming practices like no-till farming, polycultures, and cover crops, students will be able to see the benefits of managing crops sustainably.
  • After vegetables are fully cultivated, students will go on to learn how to prepare healthy meals with fresh produce. This class would include at least 10 hours of mandatory community outreach, where students will volunteer at local food pantries or shelters to observe how their work in the gardens made a concrete difference in the lives of others. Students can volunteer at the East Lyme Community Center, New London Community Meal Center, or soup kitchens to help prepare and serve meals to those who may suffer from food insecurity. All the students’ volunteer hours (including work time in the Giving Garden or cultivating seeds in the greenhouse), will be recorded and can be used as service hours to fulfill club mandates or college resumes. 

This partnership between the high school and the ELGG would not only benefit students but the whole community as well.  All the produce grown at the ELGG is given to United Way of Southeastern CT.  This organization takes all of the local Giving Garden donations and distributes them to shoreline soup kitchens (which includes the Niantic soup kitchen), food pantries, and food drives, as they have the capacity to handle and distribute volumes of produce. Having extra hands to help grow and raise the produce through student volunteers would boost the community impact that the Giving Garden currently has. Director of Garden Management Liz Farley explains the extent of the Gardens’ current impact;

“This year we produced and donated 4,000 lbs. of organic vegetables to United Way to be distributed to all the shoreline food kitchens, food pantries, and food drives in SE Connecticut…. This equates to approx. 6500 healthy meals for the food insecure children and adults of SE Connecticut.  The value of this 4,000 lbs. of organic vegetables is approx.  $13,000 if purchased in the store. We are hoping to double production in 2022.”

If more student organizations and volunteers were encouraged through classes in the high school, this partnership would allow the ELGG’s overall community outreach to expand even more and help to feed other food-insecure families outside the bounds of New London County. Farley also expressed that one of the continued struggles the ELGG faces is the workload and personnel ability to meet that load (further interview questions can be found in Appendix F). Integrating a greenhouse with the high school would ensure that more personnel (students) would be able to work in the garden and greenhouse, better keeping up with the gardening load.

V. Conclusion

The dual partnership between ELHS and the Giving Garden offers a unique opportunity for students to make a difference. People in every community should be made aware of the encroaching problem of food deserts and food insecurity that millions of people in our nation face every day. No matter how affluent a town may appear to be, food insecurity affects residents everywhere, yet it is an issue few people are aware of. When students of East Lyme High school were polled, almost 80% of pollers were surprised to learn that food insecurity in our community affects 45,700 out of 268,000 people in New London County alone (as of 2020)  (See Appendix D). As the human population continues to grow, so does the fight to access affordable and healthy food. Large-scale farming practices are beginning to take their toll on the Earth and its soil, exhausting nutrients necessary to grow crops. The food industry is struggling to keep up with the demand of a larger population, and through the mass production of monocultures and poor farming habits that cause infertile soil, fresh food is harder to come by. Programs like the ELGG partnership and greenhouse would help to educate the next generation in combating these issues by teaching awareness and prevention.

 This introduced horticulture class would help to educate children about the harms of large-scale industrial farming and the poor practices involved such as monocultures, and the impact of pesticides and fertilizers on precious soil beds. As climate change creates more uncertainty for a growing population, the importance of growing sustainably becomes more important than ever. Students will tackle problems head-on through the sustainable cultivation of crops and seedlings. They will learn how to combat harmful growing practices that are currently degrading our soil. The Giving Garden properly models how natural systems take advantage of companion planting, and the miracle of polycultures – how multiple plant species work in unison to enhance the soil – creates a phenomenon that provides natural pesticides and fertilizer! The greenhouse and Giving Garden will offer learning opportunities that pertain to any area of study; from math to gym classes. Students will thrive in this hands-on learning environment through plant education, see their impact in action through community service, and learn to conduct themselves in a world that depends on a future of sustainability.