Preliminary Research on the "Poverty Gap" in School Gardens

Below are the results from my request for information about the "poverty gap" in school gardens, sent to several national groups of community food security and food justice leaders in late December 2010 … This compilation of knowledge will continue to be updated as I receive more responses. One of the main conclusions I've gathered from this is that there is, indeed, a paucity of published research regarding the presence, impact and challenges of edible gardening at high-poverty schools. Although numerous groups are working in this area at the local level, across the United States, there is a great need for more documentation, sharing, development of a "community of expertise," and discussion of "best practices" among them! — Jeff Ethan Genauer, January 5, 2011


In my experience working in the school gardens movement, I've seen that one of the barriers to achieving this idea of "A Garden at Every School" is the high levels of poverty that exist at many schools in the United States. I'm now doing research for a proposal to start a national campaign with a focus on sustainable food gardening at high-poverty schools. I hope you will help me!

For now, what I'm seeking is information & knowledge about the presence and impact of gardens at schools in the US with high levels of poverty. I'm aware that there are numerous high-poverty schools where edible food gardens have been created, but what I'm specifically looking for is information on …

1) Any evidence that a "disparity" exists between the rate of gardens planted at high-poverty schools (especially public ones) and other schools? In other words, are gardens more likely to be planted at wealthier schools in the USA? Does poverty tend to be a barrier to the proliferation of school gardens? Or not? (Any kind of evidence is OK! It doesn't matter whether it's hard evidence based on documented research or anecdotal evidence based on your personal experiences & observations … Please share it all!)

2) Any insight into "best practices" or unique challenges for cultivating gardens at high-poverty schools? What factors are key to the success of gardens at high-poverty schools? (Please share any & all ideas! It doesn't matter if you think you're stating the obvious or if your response is totally one-of-a-kind … I'm interested in all possibilities!)

3) Any organizations who are focused on cultivating food gardens at high-poverty schools or who have significant experience in this area? If you know any or you work with one, please share!

4) Any studies or articles addressing the topic of gardens at high-poverty schools?



Dear all,

Here's the very insightful knowledge I've compiled from my request for info on the "poverty gap" in school gardens!

Thanks to everyone who shared!! My research is ongoing, so I still encourage more folks to send me your responses …

Again, the background to this is that earlier this year I won the national "Ideas for Change in America" competition for the idea of "Good Food for All Kids: A Garden at Every School" — … Winning did not provide any funding, but I'm now doing research for a proposal to shift the project toward a national campaign with a focus on sustainable food
gardening at high-poverty schools. Also, I've launched a "School Gardens Across America" group on Facebook, now with over 5,000 members, that everyone is welcome to join!!

Jeff Ethan Genauer

(Alphabetically by state)



I don’t have a lot to share because we are just starting out but I wanted to let you know about us… The Delta Garden Study. We are a research study looking at the impact of school gardens on childhood obesity risk factors in middle school youth in the Central and Delta regions of Arkansas. All of our schools are low-income and have higher than average (38% in the Delta) rates of childhood obesity. Including this year (our pilot year), we will be putting in ten gardens at middle schools over the next three years. The gardens are integrated into the curriculum through science classes and our lessons are designed to meet the Arkansas state frameworks.

The only thing I can say right now is about our work in our pilot school - a very low-income, high minority school. The kids love, love, love the garden. It is an adjustment for the teachers but they are adapting well. The test scores at the school are very low and many of the students read below grade level, some well below grade level. Parental involvement in the school is very low and opportunities for afterschool involvement are only available when transportation is arranged through the school… from what we’ve been told, parents simply will not come pick up their kids and rely on the bus to get them home no matter the time. Our afterschool gardening club is offered through an afterschool tutoring program with transportation that is required to involve some kind of physical activity – one of our teachers was able to get the garden designated as the physical activity component. The school does receive Title 1 funds though and these will hopefully prove helpful as we move into sustainability of the garden after the research year is over. Feel free to peruse our website and sign up for the newsletter to keep up with what’s going on:

If you have any more questions feel free to call or email.

Best to you in your research!


Emily S. English MPS, MPH
Delta Garden Study
Program Manager
Center for Applied Research and Evaluation
Department of Pediatrics
University of AR for Medical Sciences
Little Rock, Arkansas



FSNEP - the food stamp nutrition education program, will often provide funds for garden-based nutrition education, which is what we used at Cooperative Extension in Alameda County & I'm sure other areas have used that as well - to use FSNEP funds, it is mandatory that at least 51% of the students be enrolled in free & reduced lunch (an indicator of low-income levels) California has a statewide school garden program through which you could probably learn more about this, and I'm sure other states or major cities do as well.

You should contact Justin Watkins to learn more about the programs in Alameda County.

As with creating any program in a community that's not ones own, and particularly across race & class, I think an important consideration is being culturally appropriate, creating something that community is involved in, and creating something that the community actually benefits from. Ideally, one would work with families from the area and involve them in the garden program… the challenge of course is that many low-income families don't have "extra" time to help out at school or in the garden.

I'd also recommend talking to the FoodCorps folks about what they've learned/done.

Navina Khanna
Oakland, CA

I run a nonprofit that creates edible school gardens almost exclusively at high-poverty schools. My week is pretty packed with grant and other deadlines, but I will try and get some information to you later this week. In short here are some basic stats: Our primary work is in East Palo Alto, California where upwards of 93% of children qualify for free and reduced priced school lunches. Demographically the community is very diverse with 70%+ Latino, 18% African American and 10% Pacific Islander and the unemployment rate is well over 20%. Our garden programs focus on nutrition and science. We also work in food systems change running a "top-up" program at the farmer's market we started a couple of years ago. Through grant funds, this program matchesdollar for dollarmoney spent through SNAP (food stamps), WIC and similar programs. We also work with families to grow their own food providing technical assistance and appropriate resources.

Good luck compiling this information. Please share with the group when you're done.

Warm regards,

Kris Jensen

Congrats and great work!
I recommend contacting Mud Baron, Green Policy Director for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He works out of the South LA school board office. I look forward to hearing more about your findings. Through my work in L.A. as a Master Gardener and as the Farm to Preschool manager I've seen first hand the struggle for resources to start and upkeep school gardens in South and East LA in stark contrast to schools in the West LA.Best of luck! I look forward to your research and conclusions, please keep me updated.
-Rosa Romero

Let's talk, I have a garden in Nickerson Garden Housing Project's located in South Central Los Angeles. Also 14 school gardens South Central Los Angeles & Compton.

R.A. Fagan



Denver Urban Gardens broke ground on our 100th community garden this past year; of those 100, 25 are on school grounds and the vast majority are in low-income neighborhoods. Additionally, Judy Elliot, DUG's Education Coordinator, focuses on community empowerment as a key piece of her role. She would be an excellent contact for you. She has years of experience and can address your email in a very meaningful way. I hope that is helpful for you. Best, Shannon

Shannon Spurlock
Community Initiatives Coordinator
Denver, CO 80205



Our organization, Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, currently serves over 1,000 students in New Orleans through Edible Teaching Gardens at four public charter schools. 98% of our students qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program. We have been providing support to other schools, both at poor and wealthy schools, to start their own edible education initiatives.

-Sara Hoffman
Edible Schoolyard NOLA



My organization runs several school gardens and we do focus on high-poverty schools. So I guess that in our City of Portland ME there would be some disparity in the other direction (we are more likely to work with a title 1 school than a private school). We do have significant experience but little documented in the way of articles or scholarly studies.

Amy Carrington
New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP)
Cultivating Community
52 Mayo St. (physical)
P.O. Box 3792 (mailing)
Portland, ME 04104
207.761.GROW (office phone)



I am not sure if you heard from Michigan yet, but Detroit and Flint, especially Detroit has a lot of school gardens and most of those Detroit schools are high poverty. I think contacting Greening of Detroit, which is a non profit that supports many of those gardens would help you find the information you seek.

Anne C. Scott
Youth & Community Food Outreach Specialist
C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU

School Garden in High poverty area; Edison School, Kalamazoo Mi and check out Fair Food Matters in Kalamazoo, they do a garden a the Woodward School-

Channon Mondoux
The Eclectic Kitchen LLC
"The Cook You Can Book"


My name is Meredith Taylor and I direct Food & Environment Programs for a non-profit CDC ( in Trenton, NJ. My department currently supports 27 community gardens across the city and school gardens in 10 of Trenton's public schools. (That's = to @ 1/3 of all the school sites)

Trenton is a poor city and qualifies for universal breakfast because the high percentage of children living below the poverty level. I was interested in responding to your request for information because every day in my work I experience the "poverty gap" you are referring to. Trenton (the capital of NJ) is a mostly brown and black city in Mercer County that is surrounded by significant wealth. Princeton, Lawrenceville, Pennington, Hopewell, and Hightstown are nearby towns with very high property values, highly ranked public school systems and a lengthy list of elite country day, prep schools, and private academies. Now that school gardens are en vogue…they're popping up everywhere on my radar.

1) Any evidence that a "disparity" exists between the rate of gardens planted at high-poverty schools (especially public ones) and other schools?

In my work, I would say that there is a disparity in the rate of gardens planted in poor schools vs. wealthier schools. However, I believe that the disparity is driven more as a result of the process in how many school gardens get established. In the surrounding suburban communities like Princeton, a lot of the school wellness / nutrition and physical activity work is done under the watchful eyes of interested moms. In many of these towns there are significant numbers of families with mothers that are at home during the day. These women are generally very educated and highly motivated to be involved with the school, PTO/PTA, and other volunteer activities that enrich their child's educational experience. They have the time and means to initiate the process, recruit other parents for support, and then sustain the gardens once they are built.

By contrast, in poor cities like Trenton. All of the push for gardening comes from outside groups like Isles (the one I work for). The funding for the gardens comes from grants that I write. The volunteers mostly are teens, college students, and corporate volunteer groups from outside the community…not the parents of the children I serve. Administrators in poor districts often site poverty, poor academic performance, violence, and a myriad of other serious social conditions as barriers to making school gardening a priority activity. Therefore, if the work is advanced at all, it must be done by outside groups. At full-tilt the best I can do with my current staffing and financial resources is 2 - 3 school gardens per year. That includes all the follow-up visits, technical support and assistance and work to keep the gardens weeded and watered during the summer when the kids are gone.

I could do much more with more "boots on the ground" but we don't get much outside help. A perfect example is the failure of our county extension office to take an interest in urban gardening activities (by adults and/or kids in the community). Trenton is perceived as being dangerous and scary and so it is impossible to get any of the Master Gardeners to volunteer their time and expertise…even at the schools. Princeton, Lawrenceville, and the other wealthier towns don't have this problem.

2) Any insight into "best practices" or unique challenges for cultivating gardens at high-poverty schools? What factors are key to the success of gardens at high-poverty schools?

I've been engaged in nutrition education and food systems work for just over 10 years now. My thinking on this has evolved over the past decade. My most successful high-poverty schools have a high level of teacher and administrator engagement. They seek me out…not the other way around. The administrators at these sites tend to be older and more experienced (read…they've been around and know how to work the system). They also have good command presence. The teachers look to them to provide direction and set the tone. I have one school where the garden is not "an option." The principal contacted me a year in advance stated very clearly what she wanted and what she was going to require her teachers to do and they're doing it. The entire 4th and 5th grade maintains the garden, they've taken a farm trip this fall and will have another trip to the same farm this spring. We do follow up lessons with the students on different aspects of urban ecology and how the garden is connected (soil, water, trees, flora/fauna, etc.)

In contrast, I have another school where the school nurse has been running the show. There's been no acknowledgement or acceptance of the garden from the key administrators and so the teachers don't use the space, there's been no attempt to link curriculum to the garden, and I have no idea from month to month how many students actually visit the garden. The school nurse seems to be running her own garden club afterschool and that's about it. To me, this is a failure b/c I can't measure the impact of the garden, or the return on investment that we've made.

As far as best practices are concerned, in a perfect world, Trenton schools would have more parental involvement. I am still trying to figure out how to make this happen. So far, I've been successful in substituting passionate teachers / administrators for parents. It's working…for the most part. However, there are limitations. The school district frequently moves staff around from place to place. I could have an awesome principal for two years, and then he or she is moved to another building and I get another person who is much less enthusiastic. That's why getting parents involved is so important. They can carry some of the load and provide assistance when support softens within staff or administrative ranks.

NOTE: I've come across lots of school gardening research, but none that I recall focuses on poor school districts. I'll look through my stuff and forward whatever is relevant.

Hope this helps!

Good Luck,
Meredith Taylor


NEW MEXICO (my own short response)

Personally, I have seen the poverty gap in New Mexico, where I was living most recently in Rio Arriba County — supposedly the poorest county in the state & heavily rural. As far as I'm aware, the only school-based agriculture in this county is a small, wonderful but struggling private school farm named Camino de Paz. Lots of produce from local farms in Rio Arriba is getting sent via Farm-to-School into the wealthier Santa Fe and Albuquerque schools, but very little (if any) of it is getting into local school cafeterias. In Santa Fe and Albuquerque, meanwhile, there are burgeoning school garden movements. In Santa Fe, this has been due partly to one non-profit organization which has been spending up to $50,000 per garden & installing numerous gardens over a series of years … I'm not sure where their funds are coming from, but it's pretty clear that there is no one in Rio Arriba investing like that in gardens & meanwhile the local schools are overwhelmed just trying to survive financially while keeping the predominantly Hispanic & Native American student population under "control" … I've heard that McCurdy School (a Methodist middle & high private school known as one of the Espanola area's best schools but still very poor) long ago had a big vegetable-producing garden and dairy cows, and some staff there are interested in reviving it … Also, Dixon Elementary (high-poverty public school) wants to start a garden but lack of staff time & funding have been the obstacles. That said, I don't have much detail to share, but a number of the ALBQ and Santa Fe school gardens are indeed at high-poverty/minority schools, such as (in ALBQ) Native American Community Academy and South Valley Academy … More info about NM's school garden movement can be found here: AND in the recent Albuquerque Public Schools report "Growing the Outdoor Classroom," available @

Ethan Genauer
Espanola, NM



I live in an extremely poor neighborhood, the "south, south Bronx. The area is also called Mott Haven. Most or many of the schools in this area have no grounds around them. Children have no "outdoor areas" in which to play. They certainly have no area in which to have a garden. One school contacted our community garden requesting use of our garden to teach the children. Maybe you could get some facts on urban schools. Where they are located and on how much land and where and how would they have a garden. How the situation precludes how many schools could have a garden.

Looking forward to your report out to the group — I just joined the board of a small county-owned farm in Westchester County, NY. While the county is affluent, Hilltop Hanover Farm & Environmental Center provides a significant amount of fresh vegetables to the county foodbank and to homebound senior citizens (4 tons) as well as running the area's only vegetable u-pick operation (that attracts visitors from Queens and Brooklyn) in addition to a farmstand. We're looking to do more programs with school gardens, including hosting gardens (since space at many schools, especially once you get down to NYC, is a premium) and educational programs to compliment them. Another program we'd like to implement when we have the money is mobile food markets to food deserts in our region. I'd also love to work with foodbank clients to grow some of their own food, including container gardening, and cooking/preserving classes in order to increase self-sufficiency — but I'm up against a lot of roadblocks to do this and I think your questions will help prepare us for both the school gardens as well as working with foodbanks.

Rochester Roots operates a 1/2 acre school garden and permaculture garden at Clara Barton Elementary School #2 and a 21' x 42' greenhouse and 1/8 acre courtyard garden at Franklin Montessori School. Both these schools are located in Rochester, NY where 90% of youth live at or below poverty. The district itself has 90% poverty in 50% of its schools. We grow organically and plant 90% heirloom varieties that are culturally appropriate to the black and hispanic populations. A small percentage of students are white. I would guess 15%.

There are a couple private schools in the area that also have gardens (run by the schools themselves). These gardens are not established based on need, but rather intended for education, use by the students to address sustainability and locavore interests. The produce is sometimes used in the cafeteria and classroom.

Rochester Roots works with the Pre-K - 6th grade students in all aspects of the garden's development. We are in the two school two days per week and work with the students in 45 minute increments. The students plant, cultivate, harvest produce for themselves. The lessons are integrated into NY State Learning standards; a garden-based education program. We also market produce at a local-growers-only inner city farmers market less than 1 mile form the school. We accept WIC and Farm Market Nutrition Program coupons, so low-income families can get high quality produce at no cost.

The students also make products from garden materials as part of their entrepreneurial programming. The funds raised from their skin salve and lip, recycled paper baskets, and Job Tear's seed bead jewelry get deposited into the program budget. We aren't able to work with the Pre-K - 6th grade students during the summer - at this time - due to transportation costs, supervision issues, and shelter/bathroom issues. Our gardens are maintained by staff, volunteers, and paid teenaged interns during the 8 weeks of summer. When students return in September they carry out the remainder of the years garden activities.

I have been the director of this project since 2002. We started with eight raised beds and have grown to 3/4 acres of land in eight years. Funding this project is always a struggle. In the last year the City School District provide some funding, but I've had to raise the bulk of it on my own. We have received attention from the City of Rochester and City Recreations Centers and jointly submitted grant proposals. Am waiting to hear on three. If these don't come through I'm afraid our project will have to end this year. You can view our website at for more info about our project. Check out the Power Point presentation located on the bottom left of the home page. Our whole program is well represented on that presentation and perhaps can answer some of your other questions.

Jan McDonald
Director, Rochester Roots, Inc.

I am really interested in your results as we have a 1-acre farm at the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights Brooklyn. It is a Title 1 school with almost all the students eligible for free lunch and breakfast (although none of them eat it, because the food is so bad).

We have wanted to install a school garden based on the students' design, but have not yet received any funding after many, many grant requests. It looks like a bank may fund it this coming spring on a volunteer day (we will see). Our initial 1/4 acre farm has spent $3600 in material grants and $3000 from the Department of Health to include EBT, WIC, and Senior Check services to our farmers market (food stamps if you are unfamiliar). We have pitched the school garden as an outdoor classroom laboratory, but have received no money for it to date. The school has had such deep cuts that two teachers have been laid off in the last year. We are farmers, already pushed to our limit, and also volunteering as teachers at the school to integrate farm curriculum into the school.

While the community has embraced the farm and the market (because there is a complete lack of access to fresh food in the neighborhood), there are no parents pushing for a school garden, so no parent groups trying to raise the money. Meanwhile, the first rooftop environmental science lab was installed in an upper class school in manhattan for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the borough president claims there are 3 more on the way.

The Edible Schoolyard project in Brooklyn is in a lower income community. I don't know a whole lot about it except for its $1.5M price tag. It is a gorgeous retractable greenhouse with an integrated cafe. What I gather from all this is that technology = funding. We are bigger than both these projects, providing more food than either of the projects will, and we have had a hard time receiving funding. This difficulty is partially because we are full time farmers with little time to meet with politicians, and I also wonder if our situation is confusing to donors because we are both a school farm and a school garden (or will be when we have the money to build it).

Next point I wanted to make was that school gardens can be SO cheap in terms of materials, but whoever is dedicated to the upkeep of the garden usually ends up being temporary (either a parent or teacher volunteer). The trick is getting a position funded or else the garden disappears with that person.

Stacey Murphy



1) Any evidence that a "disparity" exists between the rate of gardens planted at high-poverty schools (especially public ones) and other schools? «

More gardens appear to be _started_ at high poverty schools. The problem is that they often don't last, while the wealthier schools maintain their gardens. This isn't a simple matter, but part of the problem is that low-income school projects are often grant (one shot) funded and propelled by middle and upper class folks from outside the school who bring the grant. There's little planned, strategic effort to build community and share ownership in the garden from the start - granted, not an easy thing to do - and on-going funding post-grant rarely materializes. The saddest thing is when the initiators, usually very well meaning folks, blame the teachers, kids and families for the garden's demise.

Does poverty tend to be a barrier to the proliferation of school gardens?

Poverty is a barrier to everything. Some cultures of poverty (with a big exception or two) do not see gardening as an unquestioned good. Working with the homeless, I ran across the 'working for the man' response quite a bit. The exceptions are older folks who gardened - it saved them during the Great Depression, and they remember - and immigrants from agrarian backgrounds. That's why curriculae linking elders to youth, such as Garden Mosaics from Cornell, are so valuable.

I'd add to anyone's list finding and supporting classroom teachers who are interested in gardening. "Early adapters", if you'd like, from Extension Theory. And linking school and community gardens.

I'd suggest Dr. Lucy Bradley at NCSU, who did a terrific job with school and youth gardens in Arizona. Also SEEDS in Durham, NC - it may be that school gardens are just a step on a continuum that should include youth garden projects apart from schools (at least, as schools are currently structured). And, of course, the good ol' American Community Gardening Association. The National Gardening Association is also very much into school gardens and gardening with children, though I took a different approach. And LifeLab, out of Santa Cruz, CA, and Garden Mosaics are probably my favorite curriculae.

Don Boekelheide
Charlotte, NC
(former teacher who started gardens for 5th and 3rd graders, former Peace Corps ag ed volunteer in Togo)


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