In 'Food Forests,' Students Grow Vegetables — And Their Science Test Scores

Jan 4, 2018

In elementary schools throughout Miami-Dade County, students snack on cranberry hibiscus during class and eat lemongrass-infused rice in the cafeteria.

They help grow the fresh fruits and vegetables themselves in on-campus gardens. 

School staff incorporate the crops into lunch menus and send them home with the kids in “harvest bags."

But the gardens don’t just feed the community. They also help improve students’ science achievement, according to the Education Fund, the nonprofit in charge of the project.

The Education Fund operates 51 gardens — including 21 massive ones dubbed “food forests” — at some of the poorest elementary schools in the district. Earlier this year, the group gave pre-and post-tests in science to about 1,000 students in 35 of the schools. Eighty percent improved.

And 100 percent of teachers surveyed said the kids were more interested in science than they were before they started working in the gardens.

Inspired by the nonprofit’s work, the Miami-Dade County school district now provides teachers with sample science lessons that include activities in gardens.

Education Fund president Linda Lecht said she sees the “food forests” as science labs.

“You can teach all types of science” in the gardens, she said. “Obviously plant science — that’s a no-brainer. But you can teach about temperature. You can teach about energy. I saw a teacher doing a physics lesson. … They were pulling up yucca, and it was [a lesson about] force and friction.”

“Food forests” cost between $15,000 and $30,000 to build, and the group hopes to continue installing more as quickly as it can raise the funds.

In the “food forest” at Myrtle Grove Elementary School in Miami Gardens, third graders said they’ve discovered how plants grow. They’ve also learned about the importance of teamwork.

“If you do something by yourself, it’s going to take you a long time to do it,” said 8-year-old Tyrell Jenkins. “You can ask somebody else to help you, so you can get it done quickly.”

Working in The Education Fund's "food forests" have helped low-income students at Miami-Dade elementary schools increase their science scores.
Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN

On the other side of the “forest,” fourth graders shoveled mulch into a wheelbarrow, preparing to spread it over soil to help prevent the growth of weeds.

Students ate liberally from the plants while they worked, especially the cranberry hibiscus, which they said was sour. They tried some kumquats but concluded they weren’t ready to be harvested yet.

Last year, the school celebrated “Dr. Seuss day,” and a teacher made “green eggs and ham” — sort of.

The “green eggs” were cooked with home-grown basil and topped with avocados. In place of ham, she served their favorite fruit from the garden: papaya. 

Here's a list of everything they've grown.