Lessons from a school garden

Harvest day is an exciting day at the Southside Occupational Academy. Ms. Hawkins gathers her students at one of the school’s gardening areas to clip juicy strawberries and lots and lots of fresh bok choy. Everyone grabs their blue scissors and lovingly snips each leaf at a time. Every bucket filled with the new vegetable is going straight to the school cafeteria where students get to try it for the first time after weeks of caring for their crop.

In the course of the year, these students have grown cherries, herbs and greens, corn and squash. Depending on the season, it’s always something different. The school is also building a new chicken coop and they even harvest their own honey. Yes! The beehives on the property contribute to a healthier ecosystem and their “Believe in us Southside Sweetness” honey is a favorite at the local farmer’s market.

Not every student in Chicago, however, has access to such a transformative outdoor classroom. Southside Occupational Academy is one of 144 schools to have joined The Kitchen Community, a non-profit organization building Learning Gardens, edible gardens and outdoor classrooms that add green spaces to urban schools in the city. Through their Learning Gardens and accompanying curriculum and program, they are connecting kids to real food and empowering them to make healthier choices.

“A garden like this one can do so much for a child, but our ultimate goal is simple. We want kids to experience eating what they grow.” Mike Biver, Development Manager at TKC Chicago explains that these gardens introduce children to an abundance of healthy foods that they might not currently have access to, particularly if they live in food desert zones. It can even help interrupt the toxic school food cycle. Kids are more likely to eat the vegetables offered to them during the school day when they have a connection through the Learning Garden.

Currently TKC’s garden footprint is the largest in Chicago and they are very thankful to professionals like Ms. Hawkins who believe in the impact the gardening experience can have in children. TKC likes to work closely with educators and garden teams to support and provide them with all the gardening know-how to develop successful teaching programs in the Learning Gardens.

“This school is a great example. We need people like Ms. Hawkins who take the program and run with it. They have immense passion for it and it shows in the results,” says Biver.

After a couple of hours of harvesting, Ms. Hawkins gathers her class inside to go over their accomplishments. Her classroom is plastered with pictures of new plants and their names, seasonal information and lists of to-dos. There are even more plants by the windows, seed starter kits and all kinds of tools and materials. It feels very much like a science lab, but here students touch on many topics from nutrition and health, to the environment, society and the real world.

The school bell finally rings; it’s time for the next class. Students leave Ms. Hawkins’ classroom happy. They now know what they need to do to grow strawberries and bok choy, but maybe more strawberries than bok choy because strawberries are just more delicious.

A lot of organic learning happened today. Students are rewiring their thinking to believe that they are able to grow their own food if they’re hungry, and that this food is 100 times better than anything else they can get from a value menu.

They are learning to stay grounded in the things that truly matter, like working with a purpose, collaborating, having initiative, being patient and persistent. They are gathering the tools to build stronger communities, regardless of where they live in our city.

It all started by people who challenge them to push for a better, healthier world.


  1. Fantastic post! Thanks for shining a light on this amazing program on Chicago's southside!

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