Last month, Boston Green Academy’s new outdoor classroom opened its garden gates for the first time. It’s the first of ten new outdoor classrooms being implemented across Boston Public Schools as a part of Mayor Michelle Wu’s Connect, Learn, Explore initiative, which aims to help Boston’s youngest learners get the best education.
The project was kicked off with the help of Green City Growers, an organization that transforms underutilized spaces into biodiverse food production landscapes. This week’s edition of the Joy Beat is showcasing Green City Growers’ work and how it exposes students to careers in environmental science, botany, landscape architecture, urban agriculture and a lot more—all while teaching kids to appreciate the value of the outdoors.
Green City Growers’ president, Christopher Grallert, and its director of programs and education, Caitie Dwyer-Huppert, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to share a bit more about the organization and urban agriculture as a whole. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: Chris, if you could start us off, tell us about how this partnership with BPS came to be. Is this a first of its kind?
Christopher Grallert: This started about ten years ago, I think, at the charter school—actually, through a relationship with the Friends of the Boston Schoolyards. Over the years, we’ve increased to now, I guess, 48 or so public schools.
But it’s the kind of programming that’s lasting. The garden beds themselves are built to last. Green City Growers is going to keep coming back, so it adds a particular assurance to the success of the program that many other programs in the past haven’t had, and I think BPS has taken notice of this. It’s an exciting time for us, and I think for BPS as well.
Rath: Caitie, tell us a bit more about the process and how Green City Growers has grown to where you are now.
Caitie Dwyer-Huppert: Yes, it’s such a partnership. The sustainability department in Boston Public Schools facilities, as well as Friends of the Boston Schoolyard, really get it. They get what we also believe: every Boston public school student really deserves to have their hands in the ground, to have a space at their school where they can be in nature and they can see and feel plants growing—not only to understand where their food comes from but feel kinesthetically as they’re learning how a seed grows and responds to the sun, and the rich soil in their own hands as they attend with our farmer educators to the plants and create beautiful and sustainable gardens that, with our educators, grow through spring, summer and fall.
And it can be tied to their curriculum—their science curriculum, literacy, social-emotional needs that we all have, to be together outside and work as a team and see the results of their work really benefit their school community. We work together as a team with facilities and also with food nutrition services to have gardens that are really productive, and our agronomic systems where the students are working with our educators—pre-K to 12—to create these learning spaces.
Rath: What are the kind of underutilized spaces that you have been turning into these biodiverse landscapes?
Dwyer-Huppert: Just blacktop areas right in front of the school by the school door. In other cases, it might be part of an outdoor classroom where students are already outside on the grass, where young children are coming out and now have a garden to be learning in. They’re really places of joy that may have been neglected. Now, they’re being cared for every week and sometimes even more often, as teachers can be out there with their students when our educators are not out there.
Grallert: I think an interesting thing to add, if I could, Arun, is that this year—and I can’t believe it when I say it—Green City Growers is managing over 200 organic garden sites and indoor hydroponic systems and ecological landscapes in eastern Massachusetts and other places like New York City and beyond.
We’re not flying to the moon here, right? We’re doing something that’s been done for 10,000 years. Agriculture, depending on the kind, has been around for that long or longer. We’re just putting it in places that it hasn’t been for a long time, or has never been. We need the essential, fundamental things to grow: water, sunlight and soil.
You know, it’s something we were all involved in 150 years ago. The family unit directly revolved around connection over the food system. That’s the one thing we share. So, by having Green City Growers manage these sites as a service, we bring that level of expertise to ensure that the gardens are productive and beautiful all the time.
We have to do this right. Clearly, our amazing and incredible food system that we’ve created, particularly since the Green Revolution, is starting to show some flaws. The demand and the simple need for sustainability to look at what distributed production agriculture is going to look like is so important to all of us. Green City Growers, I think, is right out front and participating in that conversation of what food system transformation looks like. I have no idea what it’s going to look like in five years, except I know that it’s going to be super cool.
Rath: It’s interesting to hear you both talk about this. Maybe this is kind of a dated reference, but it makes me think about the Victory Gardens during World War II, when people were growing their own food, but also the way that you’re talking about the sense of a common purpose.
Grallert: I feel like in this world that is so divided and with so much contention, there’s not a better place to come together than in an organic vegetable garden. I do believe that when you spend time in a space doing something like this with someone else, you quickly learn that you’re more alike than different.
I also believe in the potential productivity of this. The Victory Gardens—I forget the exact number—but I think at its peak was producing in backyards and in small market gardens around 48% of the total fruit and vegetable needs during those periods of time.
Rath: I didn’t know that.
Grallert: It was a significant number.
Rath: Finally, talk a bit about what it means for kids in the city, what this must mean to them to be able to have this kind of experience.
Dwyer-Huppert: Most Boston public school students don’t have a backyard, so this is their space to be in nature they feel like is their space in their school community with each other to go and stop by and see how the tomatoes are growing.
We’re not only teaching how to grow vegetables; we’re also introducing kids to their place on the earth. In a lot of cases, our primary educators are coaching kids to overcome some fear that they might have around creepy crawly creatures like an earthworm, or just dirt. We reach a lot of kids, but we also intentionally set them up so that students are coming back with their teacher in their class. They really learn like a farmer does.