Finding Garden Solutions In Durham, N.C.

Finding Garden Solutions In Durham, N.C.

Wed 15 Jun 2011

Story by Alice Bumgarner

I had spent the early-morning hours uprooting and tossing into the compost heap dozens of perfectly healthy lettuce plants from my daughters’ elementary school garden in Durham, N.C.

The crisp butter, red, arugula and romaine lettuces had gone mostly uneaten, and now the plants were starting to bolt, which meant their leaves would be too bitter to eat.


Nothing I had done so far had stopped food from the school garden, which I helped found two years ago, from being wasted, even as many adults and students griped about the heavily processed cafeteria fare. Students had watered these plants for weeks, thrilling over each new sprout, only for the green beauties to languish in the garden uneaten.

As a volunteer, I’d organized special school-wide cooking events so students could harvest and prepare their own dishes. I’d sown plants that could be eaten raw, like carrots, radishes, broccoli and lettuce. I’d started a free farmers’ market over the summer, so the weekly harvest could go directly to families who couldn’t always afford the steep price of fresh vegetables.

Nothing was working nearly well enough. The edible garden was thriving, yet at least half of the vegetables in it were ripening, waiting, and then going to waste.

As frustrating as the situation was, I could understand why it was happening. Teachers simply couldn’t find the time during the school day to harvest and eat those garden vegetables. And how many of them felt comfortable enough with their gardening skills to venture outside with some 20 elementary students?

I also knew something else: The garden’s organically grown vegetables weren’t going to cross the threshold of the school cafeteria. Because of laws I don’t even fully understand, the fresh produce isn’t allowed to be served, officially. It was either find a way to bring those vegetables into the classroom, or forget it.

In that moment, as I pulled up uneaten lettuce plants, I vowed - like some modern-day Scarlett O’Hara -that I’d never waste perfectly good food again.

For our school, with its two-year-old garden, the challenge wasn’t growing stuff. No, the challenge was finishing the job. To help kids understand where “real” food comes from, they had to actually eat what they’d grown.

So, all spring we developed a solution: Cooking classes during the school day, using our school nutritionist Becca and a mobile cooking station.

Becca comes to our Title I school through a county Health Department program, and was thrilled to try something new and convert her teaching sessions into a hands-on gardening, nutrition and cooking class.

Three industrial design students from a nearby university agreed to fabricate a custom cooking cart that could be wheeled outside to the garden or into any classroom. And families from the school community - as well as Walmart and Target - chipped in funds for all the pots, peelers, cutting boards and other cooking supplies we’d need.

In the end, our school’s PTA only spent $74 on the wood and steel needed to build the cart.

Last week, to kick off the new program with fanfare, we invited award-winning chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C., to harvest in the school garden and prepare a fresh salad with a buttermilk-based dressing — all built around what’s in the garden right now.

Kids, meanwhile, relished the chance to forage for red and orange carrots, three different types of lettuces, radishes, edible flowers and broccoli seed pods. We used chives, sorrel, onions and other herbs from the garden for the dressing. Back in the classroom, the kids were surprisingly open to all the new flavors as ingredients came together in a salad.

Two days later, Becca arrived with two recipes for students to make - Root Vegetable Slaw and a traditional Carrot Salad. After nine cooking classes in two weeks, Becca has introduced over 200 students to the pleasures of parsnips, celery root, carrots and radishes - harvested from our very own garden.

Now we’re cooking.

About the author:
Alice Bumgarner is a professional writer and a parent volunteer. Her kids are in kindergarten and 3rd grade, so she has many more years of garden volunteering ahead of her! To read the school’s Growing Gardeners blog, visit


More News