Inner-city kids develop green thumbs

By HermineBloom

Imagine the reaction of an elementary school student who first discovers that vegetables actually grow out of the ground, beginning as seeds and developing into edible plants, as opposed to a stack in a grocery store’s display. The folks at the nonprofit organization, the Organic School Project, aim to not only witness the sparkle in the childrens’ eyes and encourage them to take extra bites of their apples, but to holistically improve urban youth’s eating patterns, especially those who live in food deserts, and ultimately build healthy-minded individuals.

The Organic School Project is an organization dedicated to encouraging urban youth to eat healthy by hosting a number of different activities involving gardening, cooking and general sustainability. They employ the Grow Teach Feed Model, which was designed to expose young elementary school children to the natural food growing process to avoid childhood obesity and improve their quality of life, said DiAnne Richardson, executive director of the Organic School Project.

Greg Christian, a successful Chicago-area chef, started the organization as a way of addressing his daughter’s health issue and was very pleasantly surprised by the results, Richardson said.

Elementary school students, who are predominantly non-English speakers, at both Lowell Elementary School, 3320 W. Hirsch St., and Reavis Elementary Math and Science Special School, 834 E. 50th St., have been offered the opportunity to participate in these after-school programs as a result of the work Children’s Home and Aid has done. The social service agency has provided the funds to facilitate the snack program through their organization because the Chicago Public Schoolsalready use a food vendor, said Meta Dunn, community school manager of Children’s Home and Aid.

“There’s just something about being on a farm, being connected with your food sources—it just does something different for kids,” Dunn said. “I’ve really noticed working in the inner city that I see kids [who don’t have] access to green space, not truly understanding where their food is coming from and what natural, real food looks like. There’s a huge impact that it has on someone’s mental state and psyche and their ability to sit still and concentrate.”

Urban kids obviously don’t have the but Maureen George, program director for the Organic School Project, doesn’t believe that it’s the most hindering factor when it comes to raising health-conscious children.

“There could be kids who grow up in the city with parents who make sure that they take trips to the farm every year and plant their own gardens,” George said. “They could do the opposite in the suburbs. I think it’s comes down to what the families choose for their kids.”

After teaching inner-city, elementary-aged children for almost 15 years and being a trained marathon runner her entire adult life, Dunn, 31, recognizes the real power that nutrition has on overall wellness and the ability for kids to improve their test scores, behaviorial attitudes and outlooks on life.

Dunn,unlike George, said that asking city raised kids to go play in the park is, of course, impossible when the park is three blocks down and around the corner and their safety is inevitably in jeopardy.

Currently, the Organic School Project is hosting an event on Nov. 20 called the Fall Harvest, which is a community gathering and fundraising event.

“It’s a time to bring together people who have donated to us in the past and people who want to keep donating to us and support us and learn what we’re doing and what we’re going to do in the future,” George said. “So we’ve gotten together a few really great chefs, we have a great meal planned. [It will be] kind of an informal night of having a good time and celebrating the season.”

The Organic School Project, although rewarding on a personal level for those involved, has yet to extend its efforts to more than three schools.

“I think the thing that saddens me the most is the struggle that they’re having to expand the work that they’re doing,” Dunn said. “Getting past the predominant thought pattern of, ‘It’s too costly,’ or, ‘We don’t want to change the way that we’re already doing things.’ Sure, the upfront costs are more, but the long-term effects of the work that Organic School Project is doing are immeasurable.”

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