Growing community: How a student garden program rejuvenated a Tucson school

This blog post was written by Arizona State University graduate student Kelly McClelland. In addition to studying Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership at ASU, Kelly is a food leader in Flint, Michigan where she works as a nutrition program manager at the Crim Fitness Foundation, oversees Flint FoodCorps members, and serves on the board of Edible Flint.  

At the end of a long day of garden tours, the ASU Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership cohort gathered in the courtyard of Manzo Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona to learn about the school garden program at Tucson Unified School District.

As Moses Thompson, associate director of the school district’s garden program, explained the challenges he faced as a school counselor at Manzo Elementary, I nodded my head along to almost everything he mentioned. He spoke of students who have experienced trauma more than he could imagine, rampant community poverty, and threats of school buildings closing due to district budget cuts. All of the challenges Moses mentioned were things I have experienced in my time teaching in and managing school gardens in Flint. Despite tremendous challenges, Manzo Elementary is now the flagship school for the district’s comprehensive school garden program.

Moses Thompson explains the school composting system to the ASU cohort.

The Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) garden program provides students with opportunities to learn about and experience gardening and food production at all levels. At Manzo Elementary, students maintain vegetable gardens, tend chickens, and grow plants and fish using aquaponics. The gardens are not only learning spaces where biology and ecology concepts come to life, they also provide food for the school and community. Students run a farmstand where they sell the food they grow to parents and community members. The TUSD school garden program also provides professional development to the school district’s teachers so that they can incorporate the gardens into their lessons.

This successful district-wide school garden program illustrates the value of partnership between a school district and university. TUSD partners with University of Arizona to support the school garden program. The University of Arizona Community & School Garden Program provides support by way of student volunteers, program funding, and research. The anecdotal benefits of school gardens are well known, but partnership with the University allows for credible research to be conducted on the effects of school garden programs within the school district. Additionally, University of Arizona graduate and undergraduate interns support day-to-day garden activities as well as special projects that add capacity to the program.

When asked about the key to the success of this school garden program, Moses highlighted starting small and building relationships with key decision-makers. Manzo Elementary’s garden program did not sprout up overnight, and the expansion of the program to the rest of the school district was not without persistent and well-planned collaboration. This persistence has paid off, and now the TUSD school gardens program is empowering students — all students — to be part of the sustainable solution to feeding our world for years to come.

I left Manzo Elementary that afternoon almost giddy with excitement. I felt optimistic about the possibilities for my community’s school gardens and reassured to know that, even with tremendous and overwhelming obstacles, it is possible to sustain a thriving school garden program that will equip the next generation of food system leaders with knowledge to truly make a difference.

On behalf of the entire ASU Food Policy and Sustainability Cohort, I would like to extend our sincere appreciation to Moses, the U of A Community & School Garden Program, TUSD, and especially the students and teachers of Manzo Elementary for giving us the opportunity to visit and learn more about their transformational school garden program.

Interested in learning more about the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Program at ASU? Check out its program page!