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Zucchini and a goal of zero hunger: This school opened a community garden just in time for summer break

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West Oxford Elementary School celebrated the grand opening of its community garden this week. 

“I chose to create this garden to help our community have access to healthy fresh produce at no cost to them and in an effort to reduce hunger for some of our families facing food insecurity,” said teacher Sonia Hernandez, who led the project. 

The community garden has been in the works since 2022. 

The event began with a “growth parade,” where hundreds of students and their teachers marched to celebrate student progress from this school year. This project was school-wide and all grades, from kindergarten through fifth, participated in helping bring the garden to life. 

The garden project idea emerged from observation of students’ needs by school staff. 

Hernandez noticed that the lack of fresh produce and limited access to grocery stores in the area greatly contributed to the hunger of their students and families. Hernandez thought a garden could help address one piece of the food insecurity problem in their community, so she decided to take action.

Granville County Schools is joining other districts across the state in the effort to provide fresh food to its community with its new garden. Other districts like Halifax County Schools and Warren County Schools are also leading the way with their own farm-to-table initiatives. 

Food insecurity in Granville County

West Oxford Elementary School is located in Granville County. The county is located in the Piedmont region and borders the state line of North Carolina and Virginia. There are 18 schools in the district, and the median household income is $56,924. The elementary school is in the county seat of Oxford. 

Food insecurity is a challenge in Granville. Across the county, 19.8% of children under the age of 18 experience food insecurity. That’s nearly 1 in 5 students. More than 1 in 2 students, approximately 68%, receive free and reduced lunch. As of Jan. 1, Granville County Schools reported a total of $16,378 in student meal debt.

West Oxford Elementary school students celebrate their academic growth on June 6, 2023. Photo via Grayson Morrow

UN Sustainability Goals

West Oxford Elementary School aligned the community garden with the UN Sustainability Goals. They decided to focus on Zero Hunger and Sustainable Cities and Communities to incorporate the UN goals with their curriculum.

Back in February, the school hosted a Global Book Night, where parents participated in a shared reading experience and planted seeds. These seeds became the first seedlings planted in the new community garden.

A B Corporation called Participate Learning helped West Oxford turn their idea of a community garden into a reality. Participate Learning partners with schools and districts to develop language proficiency and cultural competency. West Oxford first partnered with the organization in 2019 to implement their Global Leaders framework and improve the school. A Participate Learning consultant has been working with the school to integrate global competencies into existing school goals, like this new community garden.

Graphic via United Nations Foundation

“The garden is just one tangible outcome of a wide range of impact that working with global leaders has on the school,” said Andy Barron, director of public relations at Participate Learning.

They started with strategic planning and then launched the Global Leaders framework in early 2020. Hernandez began working on the community garden project with them in 2022 through a global curriculum fellowship.

According to a case study conducted by the organization, West Oxford student test scores are improving since implementing the framework. They hope this community garden will continue to yield positive outcomes for the school.

A special thank you was also given to the Granville Education Foundation, which provided two grants totaling more than $1,800 to help bring the garden to life.

Celebrating academic growth

Zucchini begins to grow at West Oxford Elementary School’s new community garden. Photo via Grayson Morrow

West Oxford hosts two growth parades a year. Both parades celebrate the positive growth in academic performance that the students have made during the school year. The parades bring the community together, with parents and other family members in attendance.

Each grade level displays their growth differently, from handwritten signs for some of the older students to handmade hats for some of the younger ones. 

The students marched out of the back entrance to the school and took a lap around the playground. This time, in addition to walking past the swings and animal coop, they marched by their new community garden.

One student, Camden Brown, shared his excitement for the new garden by reading a poem he wrote about his hope for cherries in the new garden. Cherries are his favorite fruit.

West Oxford Elementary School students pass through the back entrance of their school for the growth parade on June 6. Photo via Grayson Morrow

Fertile ground for change

The students’ excitement for the new garden is furthered by the hope staff have about the food it will bring to a community in need. Right now, they have zucchini, squash, cucumbers, watermelon, and several other produce types planted. Several have already sprouted and will continue to grow as the area gets warmer and as it rains more in the coming weeks.

As fruits and vegetables become available throughout the summer, West Oxford will coordinate distributing them to families in their community. 

“I’m very thankful for our school community and administrators that have helped this vision become a reality,” said Hernandez. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Participate Learning is a nonprofit organization. It has been updated to reflect that Participate Learning is a B Corporation.

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.