Written by Zac Coventry, M. Eng. –
For two years I labored to build an integrated farm in Mindo, Ecuador. The work represented a strategic partnership between the United States Peace Corps, Mindo Futures (an international non-profit) and La Unidad Educativa Fiscomisional Técnico Ecuador (an Ecuadorian vocational high school). That season of life introduced me to the joys and complexities associated with developing a local, sustainable food and nutrition program.
A similar vision is being realized at the Denver Green School (DGS). In 2011 DGS entered into a partnership with Sprout City Farms and Denver Urban Gardens to establish a one-acre farm site on the school’s property. The DGS farm is used to educate youth and adults on topics related to food, agriculture, nutrition and healthy lifestyles. But that’s not all! The farm also produces organic vegetables and herbs which are used to meet a variety of local needs. Part of the food is enjoyed onsite by students in the DGS cafeteria (sugar snap peas are always a favorite), some of the food is sold via a farm stand on DGS property (the students help run it), and the remainder of the food is donated to local food banks or qualifying families.
In August of this year the Food Systems Research Group (FSRG) and a few of our friends toured the DGS farm with Meg Caley, Director and Chief “Agricultural” Officer of the farm. Under Meg’s leadership the DGS farm has successfully converted a plot of “normal” (read: “hard and almost void of beneficial microorganisms”) urban ground into a thriving vegetable garden. The farm’s yields have been increasing every year even while consuming less water than a comparable area of irrigated turf grass. Those successes are rooted (pun intended) in Meg’s production philosophy which could best be described as integrated and symbiotic.
The DGS farm integrates modern vegetable production techniques (e.g. drip irrigation and the “Florida Weave” for tomatoes) with low-tech practices. My favorite low tech vegetable production practice was the “Iron Maiden” — a giant pseudo-pitchfork made from tubular steel (heavy!) used to break up hard ground. Meg demonstrated her mastery of the tool and then invited us to give it a try!
The DGS farm encourages symbiosis between plants and other beneficial organisms. Across the farm we saw vegetables mingled with herbs, ornamentals and other native plants in a 100% organic environment. Such practices increase yields, improve soil health and create a safe environment for students as they cultivate, harvest and consume the food that they grow.
DGS’s approach to urban farming allows Meg to feel good about the food the farm provides to students and neighbors. It also allows parents and school administrators to feel good about encouraging students to get involved at the farm. Judging by the elementary students’ enthusiastic participation in the DGS farm, I would conclude that they are excited about the food and farm program as well!
When comparing DGS’s model with my own sustainable farming experiences in Ecuador, I am optimistic about the farm’s ability to “nudge” DGS students toward a lifestyle of wellness. My hope is that this is just the beginning of a trend in incorporating urban agriculture into a public school curriculum that promotes healthy minds, healthy bodies and healthy communities.