Chicago Public Schools students are getting in touch with their food, thanks to Gardeneers.
While working on the West Side in the Teach for America program in 2008, May Tsupros had many eye-opening experiences. But one moment in particular really took root: “One day I was on lunchroom duty, and a student came up to me and asked what I was eating,” Tsupros says. “I was eating a blueberry. And she didn’t know what it was. I was floored. After that, I became really aware of the lack of access my students had to food, and I wanted to change that.”
That mission was on Tsupros’ mind when she attended a TFA alumni entrepreneurial class last year and met Adam Zmick, a fellow alum who’d been cultivating his own ideas about food and education. The two soon discovered they had complementary sets of skills — he holds an MBA from Harvard, she has a master’s in education and an undergrad degree in conservation, ecology and biology — plus a shared passion for gardening, food and teaching. “We combined our expertise and just plunged right in,” Tsupros says. They established the nonprofit Gardeneers in January, and began planting themselves into local schools in March.
Tsupros, now an administrator at Chicago Bulls College Prep charter school, and Zmick, a full-time Gardeneer — plus employees Amanda Fieldman, Randall Jamrok and Margo Mejia — focus their efforts on schools in food deserts and underserved areas, where at least 90 percent of the student population qualifies for free lunch. During the school year, Gardeneers offers full and half-day programming in six Chicago Public Schools and an early childhood development center in the State of Illinois building, teaching kids to work in school gardens, doing everything from planting to weeding to composting to harvesting, with the bounty going to the school’s cafeterias. But kids aren’t just getting their hands dirty — Zmick, Tsupros and their team also incorporate lessons on botany, the environment, health and nutrition, and engage parents and the community through weekend programs and invitations to participate in a class. School may be out for summer, but Gardeneers is still in bloom, offering both official programs at schools with summer classes and informal sessions where neighborhood kids and community members drop by to help maintain the gardens.
The team has high hopes for the program’s outcomes. “Studies show that students’ performance and achievement are impacted by nutrition,” Tsupros says. Other benefits include exercise and hands-on learning of crucial skills such as teamwork and perseverance. “When you have pests, or a bunny eats your tomato plant, how do you push through and keep the garden going? Research shows you give kids those skills, and they’ll do better on those tests that people care more and more about,” Zmick says. Enveloping it all is the idea of accessibility. “I want these kids to know that eating healthy doesn’t have to be a privilege,” Tsupros says. “A lot of parents don’t have the luxury of buying organic vegetables. But you can grow vegetables in your backyard or on your balcony, and it’s inexpensive and available to everyone.”
Because the program is in its first season, Zmick and Tsupros don’t have concrete data to measure results quite yet — but they do have plenty of anecdotal evidence. “At one of the schools, there was a kid who was regularly in the principal’s office for behavioral issues,” Zmick says. “But when he’s in the garden, there are no problems whatsoever. He’s an active, engaged learner. The only problem is that he’s too interested, and doesn’t want to go back.” According to Tsupros, in addition to positive feedback from teachers and administrators, the garden’s effects are popping up outside of school. “They’re going home and asking [for vegetables]. Parents have told us, ‘My kid wants carrots now.’ These are huge results.”
Gardeneers has ambitious goals for growth: Tsupros and Zmick are lined up to be in five additional Chicago schools by next year, aspire to be in 25 Chicago schools by next spring, and in 2016, they hope to sprout up in other Midwest cities before sowing their seeds across the country. They’re inspired by the TFA model, which targeted 20,000 schools in 25 years. “If we can grow as fast as Teach for America grew, we can make a huge difference,” Zmick says. “We can create this generation of students who are healthy enough to get the most out of their education, and who are educated about issues like food. There’s nothing more important than what we eat. We have to do it every day, and we’re just woefully unaware about how it impacts our lives.”
Photos by Ramzi Dreessen