The last week of summer camp, students began boiling milk on Monday. They stood over a stove in the family and consumer science room at Clark Middle School in Athens, Ga.
Outside the school was an orchard, a large garden with four 30- by 50-foot plots, a chicken run with more than a dozen hens and two goat paddocks.
The kids were attending the Grow It Know It summer camp, which has been offered for five summers at the middle school and now serves about 30 children per week.
On Tuesday, students took the milk out of the refrigerator, let it come to room temperature and added rennet. By Wednesday, it had developed into cheese, which they strained through a cheesecloth. They soaked it in brine overnight, and, on Thursday, they crumbled the finished feta cheese atop a shaved squash salad, which they served to several dozen paying diners.
“It was imperfect, but tasty,” said Wick Prichard, the Grow It Know It coordinator.
Students had also prepared jackfruit barbecue, macaroni and cheese, pickled green beans and chocolate chess pie.
What gardens can teach
At this summer camp, the kids, guided by five AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, tend animals, maintain the garden, learn how to cook with fresh produce and serve a three-course meal each Thursday to as many as 50 paying adults. They also go on an overnight camping trip along the Appalachian Trail.
In addition to what they’re learning, the kids “get to experience farm life without all the hardships,” Prichard said. “That’s a really appealing lifestyle.” We’re a school garden program, but also a “food system/sustainability/experiential education program.”
During the school year, Grow It Know It operates in five Clarke County middle schools and three Barrow County sites.
The project began in 2014 partly to handle the Clarke Middle School garden over the summer when there was no one to tend it. But some staff and faculty at the University of Georgia “had an idea that school gardens could be a lot more than they were,” Prichard said.
The cycle of food
The University of Georgia Office of Service-Learning sponsored AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers and partnered with the Clarke County Schools. A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant widened the program to Barrow County.
During the school year, the VISTA volunteers work in the schools. They collaborate with teachers and guide kids to maintain the garden, compost food waste, sell produce and hold fund-raising dinners that raise money for local nonprofits.
School gardens teach kids about sustainability and food access, and they have a social impact, said Andie Bisceglia, grant coordinator for the Grow It Know It program.
For her 2018 master’s thesis, she studied a group of sixth graders in the Clarke Middle School Grow It Know It program throughout the school year.
The garden program gave students an awareness of food waste and the cycle of food from garden to table and back to the earth again, she said. Students come together in a different way in a school garden than they usually do.They work together collaboratively, rather than as individuals working for grades.
“Students are able to have success that isn’t just from a personal task,” Bisceglia said.
Gardening helps define success in education as more collaborative, she said.
It also “helps students form relationships across difference that normally wouldn’t be facing them throughout the school day,” she said. “[In the garden] they’re not stratified by learning ability.”
“Athens is like a lot of towns. It has a very socially stratified community,” Bisceglia said. The wealthier population tends to be white, while African-Americans and Latinos tend to be lower in income, she said.
The school garden brings kids from different backgrounds together during the school year, and “summer camp is a wide cross-section,” Bisceglia said.
Students increase their “awareness about food access and realize people might not be able to access it,” she said.