Organization: Waters Elementary School

Julie, a parent and volunteer at Waters Elementary School in Chicago, IL, told us this garden has been twenty years in the making. Partnerships with neighbors have blossomed into a “truly symbiotic relationship” with the school. Originally, land-strapped neighbors were given garden plots in exchange for tending to the school gardens during the summer. “We began to rely on the neighbors not just for summer help, but also for weekly garden nights, big garden projects, and now many of them co-teach during field trips and student excursions.” Now each classroom has their own garden bed to tend, and older children run the lunchroom recycling and composting program.

Waters Elementary School

“The kids learned that they really like fresh produce — no small feat considering that we are living in an urban landscape rife with fast food and packaged food options.”

Ecology Director Pete Leki told us this was the first year he has directly addressed organic gardening.

“For years we went out :
to work, to eat, to plant, to compost, to explore, to read, to sing, to draw, to run, to play. To write poetry. To sit quietly outdoors among the bugs, and butterflies, and birds, and sky and all.

But this year, this is what I told to all the kids, so you know.
This is lettuce, but special lettuce.
This lettuce has been organically grown.
Do you know what that means?

“Good for you?”

Maybe only 5% of the kids knew the most important thing:
“Our lettuce is grown without poisons.”
And I explain how most lettuce gets to our table without bugs or leaf damage.
That whole fields are sprayed with insecticides to kill the bugs.
That the lettuce is washed to try to remove the insecticide, but that almost certainly some amount remains on the plant or inside it. So we are trying to grow vegetables without poisons.
That means our vegetables will taste delicious to us, but also to bugs.
So we use screens to stop rabbits, birds to eat caterpillars, and beer traps to drown slugs.
But, sometimes bugs will make holes, and scars, and may be hiding in the lettuce.
So when we take lettuce we need to inspect it carefully and wash it twice.
We can decide for ourselves if a leaf should be discarded, or a part of it should be discarded.
And after all the washing and inspecting, the lettuce should be beautiful and ready to be served.

I loved that the kids were fascinated by the bugs, and slugs, and beer, and so willing to inspect,
and wash, and eat with pleasure SO MUCH LETTUCE. Of course, they could choose to put a dollop of Ranch or Creamy Italian dressing on it. And after a while they were asking for more dressing on littler pieces. One kid went running back to the table and squirted dressing on his hand and slurped it up. Nevertheless, they ate and enjoyed it.