Connecting Youth to Agriculture

May 10, 2020

Member profile of Big Green’s school garden curriculum and new home learning resources

An interview with Katherine Jernigan of Big Green

By Artisan Grain Collaborative, May 2020. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Big Green was founded in Colorado in 2011 to connect youth to the benefits of gardening and to increase awareness of locally grown food. The organization now serves seven communities around the country, supporting the development of school gardens nationwide and offering curriculum resources for teachers and students. Following the COVID pandemic, Big Green has moved many more of their resources online where they are available for free to anyone with an internet connection.

Artisan Grain Collaborative (AGC): What is Big Green? What do you and your team do?

Katherine Jernigan (KJ): Big Green is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to connect kids to real food through our network of learning gardens and food literacy programs. We build gardens at schools and our team helps implement a “train the teacher” model focused on garden activities and nutrition lessons for workshops. Our goal is to get people growing food and increasing their understanding of how it impacts our bodies, the environment, and the community.

I am a program coordinator and garden educator. I personally work with 35 schools in Chicago to implement programming, and the day-to-day work depends upon the school. Some of our schools are completely independent and all we provide are supplies. A lot of the schools are in the middle or at the end of the spectrum where we help them implement curriculum, plan garden activities, or physically plant the gardens. We work with teachers so that they can turn around and work directly with students.

AGC: Tell us about the Regenerative Agriculture & Food Literacy workshop you developed.

KJ: Big Green hosted a workshop supported by AGC on February 5 and 6, 2020. The teachers who participated earned professional development credits for their continuing education requirements. The first night of the training was held at one of Big Green’s partner schools, Moos Elementary, in the Humboldt Park/Logan Square neighborhoods. The second night, the course was offered at The Farm on Ogden which was especially exciting because they have an indoor growing area and a great community space.

The content of this workshop was about regenerative agriculture and the impacts of regenerative practices on soil and the community. Because our gardens are raised beds, we tailored this workshop to focus on what teachers can do in the gardens to educate students about larger food and agriculture systems. This workshop was primarily focused on explaining how larger farms might be practicing land stewardship and management using regenerative agricultural practices, offering the small scale example of school gardens. Another thing that was special about this workshop was that we had Harold Wilken from Janie’s Farm and Mill speak with teachers and answer questions. We had a lot of interest from teachers who want to take students on field trips to his farm or to similar places to show their students what these practices look like in action at a larger scale.

A big part of the workshop was helping teachers learn how to use whole grains in kid-friendly recipes. We gave the teachers in attendance a few example recipes that we cooked and ate together during the workshop. Each of these recipes would be something they could make with students in the future. Erin Meyer, a registered dietitian from Basil’s Harvest, helped teachers understand the health benefits of the oats and buckwheat that were included in the recipes.

We also provided attendees with a garden rotation plan to take back to their schools. Starting with their garden beds, which are a similar size every season, we looked at three years of production for each bed and provided a spreadsheet teachers can use to track that what they are planting, helping them to consistently rotate more crops with different agronomic needs and benefits. We also went through an activity lesson and experiment on soil erosion that teachers could take back to their classroom. [The referenced lesson plan is available here on Big Green’s website.]

We’re confident that the teachers who came to this workshop left feeling motivated and passionate and that they will take the concepts they learned back to their schools and students.

Big Green Garden Educator Ilana Marder-Eppstein demonstrating how cover crops and mulch reduce soil erosion during the “Gardening for the Future” workshop in Chicago, Illinois this past February. See resources below for more info on the workshop and Soils Activity lesson.

AGC: Was this a one-time workshop or are there other applications for it?

KJ: One thing that is important to us as an organization is to make resources, information and trainings as accessible as possible to teachers everywhere, even if they aren’t part of one of our learning gardens. We always provide all workshop materials, slide decks, links, lesson plans, recipes, additional readings, and videos on our website for free along with standardized lessons. We’re also working on developing an online food literacy course that any teacher can sign up which will offer a more extended deep-dive into issues the issues we covered in this workshop.

AGC: Why did you feel it was important to include regenerative agriculture in your curriculum?

KJ: We wanted to connect teachers and students more directly with the importance of healthy soil and to help them understand that when they are gardening, they are cultivating the soil and taking care of the microorganisms that live there. The more biodiversity the better! We want to encourage teachers and students to take a holistic approach to the garden – to view the it as an ecosystem with interconnected parts rather than as a place to put inputs in and take vegetables out. What does it mean to grow a garden? How does it connect you to a larger community and system of growing food? For older students, we wanted to give teachers materials to connect to societal issues like climate change and to help facilitate awareness of how growing food factors in.

We really appreciate hearing back from teachers who attend. We heard this from Claudia Munoz, a second-grade teacher at Funston Elementary:

“I am always grateful for the support that Big Green lends to our school. One of the best parts about the Gardening for the Future workshop was getting to meet Harold Wilken from Janie’s Farm. He was able to demonstrate the impact of regenerative agriculture on his farm as well as his personal outlook on farming. It struck a chord when he shared the rich history of his farm and opened up about the challenges that we may face as well. Currently, our gardening team is working to create a three year crop rotation plan for the first time in order to be intentional about our work and instruction in the garden. It feels like a daunting task but Harold and Big Green gave us the tools through the workshop and online resources to move towards a healthier garden and stronger school community.“


Soils Activity Lesson Plan

Big Green’s blog post about the February workshop

Big Green at Home

View Attached PDF