by Bang Tran
“What do plants need to grow?”
It’s a question that I always ask students at the beginning of all lessons that involve planting. Light and water. Nutrients and soil. They’re all ingredients for successfully growing vegetables. Two years ago, in one of my first garden lessons at the beginning of my FoodCorps service, a young girl added another answer that I wasn’t really expecting.
In fact, she shouted it: “Love! Love! Love!”
Since then, I’ve always made sure to add that special, secret ingredient to our pre-planting discussions. Because it’s true, right? When you work with students in the garden, you can see it. You can see the care they give to their plants, how delicately they’ll hold seedlings and how they’ll keep asking you for guidance so that they can create the perfect environment for their little plant friends.
Students will ask why their plant is sad and droopy, why it’s turning yellow, how come it’s not getting bigger, does it need some water today? Is this bug eating my plant? Why hasn’t my seed come up yet?
They get uncontrollably excited when they see the first fruits set—look at this little strawberry! Did you see my tiny carrot? I can’t wait for my collards to get big so that I can bring it home to my grandma!
Sometimes, the most loving people you’ve ever met are the also youngest.
Tending radishes with King Middle School Students
11 months and 11 months more
At the end of my first year of service, I had just started to feel my groove. I had completed some projects— I helped build a large school garden, grew a bunch of vegetables, finished a semester of a great vegetarian supper club with some amazing middle-schoolers, and developed and taught some of my own lessons.
Of course, there were lots of slumps, too. At two of my schools, many amazing teachers and garden champions that I worked with ended up leaving. There were some weeks with very long hours and I felt overburdened, and sometimes I felt confused and lost. Many times I felt like I wasn’t really making an impact. And I kept thinking to myself: what impact can anyone really make in 11 months when we’re talking about issues like food insecurity, food justice, and childhood obesity?
It was the first year of FoodCorps in Georgia, and I was still learning. But After hearing the amazing things that the rest of my FoodCorps Georgia cohort managed to accomplish in their first year, I was so impressed. I recalled my own proudest moment: when all the students in the supper club cooked dinner for their families. It was a small club of just a handful of students, but the amount of love and passion they showed when they harvested vegetables and cooked meals together reminded me that this work isn’t really contained in 11 months.
So, I signed up to do another year of service and tried to contain it in all 22 months instead.
Making Salad for the family dinner with King Middle School Students
Turns out, 22 months isn’t much time either
During my second year of service, I was helping with the launch of a garden to cafeteria pilot program. I was learning a lot about gardening for production versus education, trying to balance teaching and growing vegetables, food safety, and a litany of other unfamiliar things.
There were a lot of hiccups, but in April, we finally got some produce into the cafeteria: radishes! We followed up spinach, baby carrots, and snow peas to close out the school year.
At the high school I served at, I was working alongside a group of inspirational high school students. We grew vegetables and flowers to take to farmers markets, cooked for younger students and the community, and of course, grew food for the cafeteria. I had amazing conversations with them and realized that even though I am young, there are still those who are even younger working towards the same goals.
At the middle school, students kept coming up to me asking when the next cafeteria tasting was going to be. They loved trying new vegetables now. They were asking when there would be more garden produce on the cafeteria line again. They were bringing in family recipes to try in the classroom. One student said, “Before we cooked with you, I never knew vegetables could taste so good!”
At the elementary school, I was working alongside an incredible 1st grade teacher who channeled so much passion and energy into building an incredible garden program. In all honesty, I was only a cheerleader— everything stemmed from her own positive energy and vision. Towards the end of the year, she was offered a full-time position as a garden and outdoor-learning teacher, and I realized that people really do see value in what we are doing.
I finish up my year feeling like there’s so much left to do, but also feeling content and grateful that there are so many people, even young students, continuing the work for fair access to healthy food for all.
Harvesting Carrots for the cafeteria with Maynard Jackson High School Students
What we talk about when we talk about vegetables
At FoodCorps, we talk a lot about connecting kids to fresh, delicious, and healthy vegetables. We talk about building communities. We talk about the magic of a school garden and cafeteria. We talk about cultivating healthy school cultures with sustainability and staying power.
If we work with students and teach them to love—love living things, love themselves, love each other, and love to learn— we can build a sustainable future. Maybe that’s what we’re really talking about, because sustainability starts with youth growing up with a love for the earth and each other and fighting for an equitable and healthy future for everyone.
That’s why it’s so rewarding to work with students. Every child that we can get outside to search for worms or harvest vegetables is a lifelong investment in the future of our humanity and earth. Every hand in the dirt counts. Every radish grown and tasted counts. And even a single seed planted can produce enough tomatoes for 25 students to taste and learn.
What can you accomplish in 11 or 22 months?
Well, you can put a seed in the ground and love it as much as you can.