West County DIGS helps families offer their children off-screen learning and enrichment by providing plant starts and gardening tips.
Our first thoughts about the school closings associated with the pandemic were panic. Our program, which supports school gardens in West Contra Costa County of the San Francisco Bay Area, is campus based. How should we continue our work? We wondered. Would we have the means to pay employees? Will our donors move on to other issues? Shall we close the program?
Since the pandemic began, West County DIGS has given away more than 600 plant starts to teachers and families in West Contra Costa County. Photo courtesy West County DIGS.
But just as teachers adapt to the challenges of distance learning, we’ve found ways to meet our goal of making schools beautiful places where they can connect with nature in a school district where students are ahead of economic ones , equitable and health challenges. To this end, we have focused on online educational programs and offered plant starts to children and their families so they can keep in touch and promote home gardening during this challenging time.
Since its inception in 2007, West County DIGS has supported gardens in over 35 public schools, providing training and coaching to over 300 teachers per year, growing thousands of plants to be distributed to schools, and sharing innovative curricula that include math, science, language arts and art with our outdoor activities.
In the past, online work often took a back seat to personal collaboration with students, families and teachers in the dirt. Honestly, we’d rather be outside and work in the garden! However, on-site accommodation has forced us to focus more on online learning and outreach, especially through social media, as this is the way to reach most of our customers.
But we also noticed immediately that many of the low-income families we were trying to reach don’t use social media or even email very often. So we had to find other ways to get in touch with them.
At Mira Vista Elementary in the city of Richmond, headmaster Gabriel Chilcott helped us reach every single family by sending emails and text messages to their phones. The result was that over 50 families responded when invited to pick up free plant starts for their home gardens.
So far we have given away over 600 plant starts – which were sown by school children in our greenhouse in February and by our partner, the master gardeners at UC Berkeley – to teachers and families. These plant starts gave many families the impetus to start the home garden they had always dreamed of. (Check out this cute video about the plant to give away!)
One positive aspect of this pandemic nightmare is that it presents an opportunity for urban agriculture to be reborn. This is evident from the unprecedented surge in demand for seeds and plants across the country. We loved making home gardens a little easier for the communities we serve and helping families avoid the long lines and increased exposure in kindergartens.
In the meantime, with the help of an intern, we’ve updated our look and developed all of our online platforms, including our website and social media pages. We also regularly publish instructional videos on gardening techniques, recipes, and craft projects.
Our recipe sharing initiative was particularly successful, resulting in a major effort to involve our community in sharing family favorites as well as recipes inspired by our cultural heritage and school gardens. With funding from the Whole Kids Foundation, we are now working to put these recipes that reflect the diversity of our community together in a printed book that includes information on gardening and nutrition curriculum classics such as Eat a Rainbow and Power Plate . “We hope that we can distribute the book in the fall.
West County DIGS has also worked with partners Common Vision, Growing Together, and the Numi Foundation on professional development and community engagement. Together we conducted a survey among current gardening educators in the school district to assess their current situation and needs. The information gathered so far points to several priorities in the district, including: assisting with gardening, basic supplies including irrigation equipment and instructions for installation, and greater involvement of their teachers and school communities, especially as the turnover of gardening educators increases the continuity of the program from year to year difficult.
Perhaps the biggest lesson our project has learned over the past few months is that West County DIGS offers families of great value when we seek shelter and when parents have difficulty teaching home, keeping jobs, and healthy meals too to take a seat and stay healthy in the face of incredible upheavals. We help by learning and enriching some time off-screen gardening, and by helping families make healthy diet and lifestyle choices through online learning.
We have learned that we are a strong and resilient community and that we can help each other even from a distance in this challenging time.
Learn more about this Earth Island project at: westcountyschoolgardens.org