Sowing the Seeds of Change in Chicago: The New “Gardeneers”

kids as seeds

Happily cross-posted from the Food Day blog.

About forty children were crouched into small balls on the ground in front of vegetable planters. “Let’s pretend we’re seeds,” Adam Zmick, a former Teach-for-America instructor, told them. “What do seeds need to grow?” Hands shot up eagerly from down near ground level.

On a sunny Tuesday earlier this week, at Rowe Elementary School in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago, I visited a worksite of the new Gardeneers, a small organization started last fall that is bringing gardening services and education to public schools in the Chicago area. The group was founded by Adam and May Tsupros, and has already enrolled five schools. Four of their five locations have 90 percent or higher levels of subsidized lunches.

The conversation that day between the Gardeneers and the students included how to plant seeds and water them, the parts of plants and their functions, and the balance of nitrogen with other nutrients in the soil. Pickling came up, logically connected to the talk of cucumbers, and the kids rated the vegetables that they liked (and didn’t like) to eat.

Gardeneers’ new programs provide consistent support and curriculum on nutrition, biology and health to accompany the planting, nurturing and watering of seedlings by the students, some early in the spring on classroom windowsills. May explained, “About half of the schools that start gardens cannot maintain them through the school year. So we started a program to ensure that unused space is well maintained, all throughout the year.”

The Gardeneers are ambitious, aiming to grow the program to include 25 schools as early as next spring. They also hope, wherever possible, that the garden’s harvests will be used in the schools as supplements to snacks or meals. Because they are certified in Illinois’ Garden to Cafeteria program, they are well able to take the steps to manage food safely and to track their results.

As research shows, they are finding that the programs fill a need. “Many preschoolers don’t know what a root is, and they think that food only comes from a store,” said Adam. “The kids get excited when the radishes appear, and one girl told me that this was the first time she had ever tried lettuce.”

The curriculum is flexible and evolving – the lessons can involve biology, math, art, nutrition or practical skills like cooking. And the close observation and patience that students develop are good practice for scientific endeavors of all kinds. The Gardeneers also send students home with seeds and plants to care for, which invests children in the ups and downs of living organisms.

Their work is supported by foundation grants and funding for wellness programs at several of the schools. They form the latest addition to an active network of organizations in Chicago working to transform the urban landscape. With WBEZ Chicago and other partners, the group is currently planning an upcoming Day of Action in which the students will take their extra plants to houses in the neighborhood, and help residents to install their own small gardens.

One plant at a time and one student at a time, the Gardeneers are increasing awareness of healthier foods and showcasing the simple but practical steps needed to sustain them in the city.

You can read more about their efforts on Food Tank, and support their work here.

GardeneersThe Gardeneers –Margo Mejia, Randy Jamrok. May Tsupros, Amanda Fieldman and Adam Zmick.

FieldmanFieldman working with students at Rowe Elementary.

MejioMejia and students — the vegetable boxes (these were donated by partner Kitchen Community) hold heirloom and organic varieties courtesy of Seed Savers Exhange, including broccoli, lettuce, peas, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, spinach, eggplants, carrots, and herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, sage and lavender.

JamrokJamrok and students discover grown radishes. There was much excitement.

CompostLeftovers from a meal with the kids provides a lesson in worm composting.

Coming soon: an update on our own gardening adventures at home!

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Easy DIY Toy: How to Turn an Old Sweater into a Cuddly Snake

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I love hand-made toys, and this one, an adorable and not-at-all menacing crafted sleeve snake we dubbed Sammy, takes only an hour or so. Ergo, it’s yet another low-risk high-reward DIY adventure. And it’s a form of recycling to boot!

The basic idea is to felt a sweater in the clothes machine and cut off a sleeve, which minimizes (much to my relief) the sewing involved. A needle felted set of eyes, pointy tongue and optional rattler tail completes the project.

Even if you’re not super-crafty, this project is totally possible. So let me bend your ear a sec about why you should bother throwing together some hand-made toys for your home.

Our kids have been born into a world in which most things come from a store. Virtually everything has been designed for them and assembled by machines. The stuff of their lives is mass-produced, mass-marketed, often plastic, and sometimes (like most dolls) made of toxic materials like PVC. It beeps or has buttons that allow only certain interactions. It needs batteries and can break.

But the nicer toys that don’t fit this mold (literally) can be pricey. So we use “un-toys” from the thrift store, upcycle what we find (like these classic blocks or this dollhouse), hunt through yard sales for good finds (like this awesome handmade truck), or try to make our own (like these discovery jars, needle felted animals (including a sheep!) and felt boards).

This is both a practical choice and an aesthetic one focused on simpler, more natural, open-ended materials. The things that kids are surrounded by do inform the way they operate in and learn from the world – after all, that’s what toys are for. Objects that are more like things that we find in the natural world make space for them to notice and appreciate things that aren’t all hot pink and beepy.

Another benefit is that our kids see the care we put into these kinds of toys (choosing or improving them) and the process and patience it takes to make something. Imperfections and flub-ups become opportunities to learn, and signs of something produced by humans. Choices – of color, material, shape – arise, and children can be consulted as participants and co-creators. Most importantly, kids notice when things are handmade, and know that is a form of love.

And sometimes they can even help! Here’s my daughter running her hands through the buckwheat stuffing for the snake.

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So make something, or find something and do it up, or even just paint a picture or make playdough together, as your time allows. It’s all about sharing the act of creating with your child, and having a little something to show for it afterwards.

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What you’ll need to make the cuddly sleeve snake:

  • An old sweater (if not from your own closets, check thrift stores or even ask the neighborhood list serv, where I got some generous and free donations)
  • Some wool roving in contrasting colors to the sweater, including a little white, black and red
  • A needle and some thread
  • Stuffing for the snake and a funnel to fill it (I used leftover buckwheat hulls from another project, rice or dried beans or lentils would also work well)
  • Felting needle and felting block

First, shrink the sweater in the washing machine. You can find a few more details on how to do that here, but the basic concept is to wash a mostly natural materials sweater (more than 75 percent wool or the like) with hot water, a little soap and, optionally, a few tennis balls until it has shrunk considerably and you are happy with the result. You may have to keep an eye on the washer and check on the shrinking progress, repeating the cycle a few times before letting it go to rinse. Pop it in the dryer when done.

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Next, pull your materials together and cut the sleeve off at the shoulder. At the wider end (mine happened to be the end of the sleeve, due to the design of the sweater, but yours is more likely to be the shoulder), bend and tuck the ends into the inside of the tube formed by the sleeve, and experiment with the form until you have a diamond-shaped head with two slanted sides.

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When you’re happy with the shape, sew up the mouth by starting at one corner and doing a simple stitch through the turned-in parts. It’ll look a bit messy until the shape returns, but just keep adjusting until you get it back into the diamond.

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Once it’s well closed up, use the funnel to fill it with your stuffing material. This can be done with a helper to keep filling the funnel. Do leave a little play so that it’s floppy and cuddly when done.

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Next, close up the tail by starting an inch or so inside the tail end and anchoring the thread inside. Stitch around in a circle, cinching it tight as you complete each circle around the tube, and stitch it all the way down to the end.

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Then needle felt in some eyes, using a small amount of the contrasting roving directly on the snake, and then the white and black. It helps to make balls of roving before felting to get the basic shape, and then use your needle to create a circle by poking repeatedly within the shape.

Keep the needle straight up and down, and poke it in the spot you’d like the material to go, picking up stray threads as you work. More detailed instructions on needle felting are here and here, but it’s really very easy and intuitive.

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Buttons would also work for the eyes, of course, if the child recipient is old enough not to worry about choking.

Last, use a little red roving to roll in a line and form a forked tongue, and either needle felt or sew the tongue onto the “mouth” of the snake where you closed. If you like, you can add a black “rattle” wrapped over the tail by needle felting a little roving around it.

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And there you have it: your own Sammy, a ssssimple ssssssssleeve ssssssnake.

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