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The slow growth of public school gardens

School gardens are popular and useful for public schools, but implementation in curricula is slow

By: Mark Ladao

10 December 2018

It’s recess at Waikiki Elementary School. Nicole Hahn, a part-time teacher, calls out to a few boys nearby and pulls out three round fruits from her waist apron.


Hahn hosts a garden club every Friday, so students can spend their recess working in the garden.


“You want one of these?” she asks when they come over. “Name one of these things in my hand.”

“Kumquat,” one of them says immediately, pointing to the smallest one.

She gives it to him.

“What about you?” she asks another.

“Orange,” he says.




“There you go!”


She hands him the tangerine.

“Okay, you guys can look for some more if you want,” she tells them. The boys then run toward the fruit trees across the playground.


The trees are part of a larger garden at the school, which takes up about a quarter of an acre at the back of the school.


The garden includes corn, squash, breadfruit, eggplant and papaya among many other plants in its vegetable garden and fruit orchard. There are also large compost and mulch piles and even a small vermiculture center on site, where worms produce vermicompost –nutrient-rich worm feces that looks like mud – that can be used in the garden.


And the students participate in planting, maintaining and using everything in the garden.


Nearly 90 percent of the schools under the Hawaii State Department of Education’s  jurisdiction have some kind of school garden on campus, and most of them are used for instructional purposes. But the reality is, there is currently little support for school gardens statewide, as there are few full-time employees hired to tend to the gardens and trained to use them for instructional purposes.

“Not on my mulch pile!” Hahn yells as two students roll down a hill of mulch. “Off! Off! Off the pile please!”


Hahn started as a volunteer with Aina In Schools, a project of the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, to provide short lessons about school gardens for elementary school students. She eventually became a part-time teacher for Waikiki Elementary School.


“No spraying our friends please!” she says to one of the students watering plants in a garden bed.


She said the students enjoy doing garden work, whether that be watering, composting or weeding.


“If I could be here every recess, the students would want it every recess,” she said about the garden club. “But I’m only here once a week for them.”


Providing and using school gardens for students for instructional purposes is not a new concept in the United States. Initiatives around the country promote their existence and use, touting the numerous benefits they claim to have on students, such as a greater appreciation of vegetables and the environment and improved academic achievement.


Hahn tries to provide more opportunities for the students to get involved with the school garden, but as a part-time teacher, she can only do so much.

Garden Bed.jpg
Scott Mulch.jpg

Scott Kitamori has worked at the school since December 2017, tending to the garden and teaching a sustainability class for the students.


He works 37 hours a week and says he is the only person he knows who works “full-time” as a garden coordinator. Yet because his hours are technically split between two part-time positions, he lacks benefits such as insurance and paid leave.


Despite the vulnerability of working in these part-time roles, he’s passionate about the job and the fruits of his labor.


“Just being able to see everything in action I think is going to be the most beneficial thing for them in the future,” he said. “I’m doing it for the kids, man.”


Kitamori graduated from the University of Hawaii at West Oahu with a Bachelor of Applied Science and a concentration in Sustainable Community Food Systems. He started working at Waikiki Elementary soon after graduating.


One of his goals is to make farming a desirable occupation again.

Interview - Nicole Hahn
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Waikiki Elementary School's garden is an ongoing project, one students participate in growing. 

Scott Kitamori teaches students about the importance of using mulch .

Interview - Scott Kitamori
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Thanks to Kitamori and Gina Vallesteros, another part-time employee, Waikiki Elementary is one of the few public schools in the state that can provide a formal sustainability course that uses a school garden.


In this particular class, students learned about using mulch to help grow the school’s ulu or breadfruit tree.


Kitamori squats in a walkway between vegetable beds and picks up handful of mulch as students gather around him.


“All plants and animals need water, okay?” he says. “And the less water we can use, the more sustainable we can be, so if we can cover the soil up and have it hold that water for us, that’s a lot better than leaving it open and having the water...drain out.”

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Students rake mulch away from base of the Ulu tree.

After Kitamori gives his instructions, the students go to work.


They form a circle around the tree and rake the mulch under it, forming a ring the same diameter as the tree itself. Kitamori has a few students help shovel compost into a wheelbarrow and then onto the ring of old mulch while others carry buckets of mulch from the mulch pile to the tree to cover the soil with a layer of new mulch.


The garden is also equipped with an outdoor kitchen, and after the tree is taken care of, the students go to the kitchen to find Vallesteros frying diced ulu.

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At the end of the class, the students taste the fried breadfruit.

“This is ulu—this is from the tree you guys just mulched,” she tells them. “Now what we’re going to do is a very simple recipe: We’re going to fry them, they get crispy, and then we just add salt, and they taste like chips.”


“That’s why it’s important that you guys feed the ulu tree with the compost today, because we want that tree to start producing more ulu because it’s so delicious,” she says.


Though it is slow, there appears to be growing interest from the state to support school gardens.

During the 2018 legislative session earlier this year, a number of bills covered the overarching topic of integrating school gardens into public schools. For example, Senate Bill 2928 would have given funds to help move the farm-to-school program forward. But, it died in the middle of the session after being passed over to the House.

In 2017, Hawaii designated October as Farm-to-School Month to increase public awareness of the state’s efforts.


Understanding the food system is especially important in Hawaii, which imports more than 90 percent of its food but wastes 26 percent of it. Sustainable practices will allow the state to be more prepared in case cargo ships are blocked from delivering food.


For now, the introduction and maintenance of school gardens is mostly up to the hodgepodge of individuals and organizations like the Kokua Hawaii Foundation and the Hawaii Public Health Institute.


In 2008, Debbie Millikan, a sustainability specialist at Iolani School who also works with the Oahu Farm-to-School Network, started the garden at Waikiki Elementary, which her children attended. Although they are no longer at Waikiki Elementary, she continues to play a big role in managing the program.


Millikan sees school gardens as an immersive experience when it comes to sustainability.


“A school garden is close to your campus and your launch pad,” she said. “The garden is what you see every day.”


These days, Millikan is also looking to promote the use of school gardens in other ways.


She was a guest at an Institute for Teacher Education class at the University of Hawaii at Manoa along with Lydi Bernal, coordinator for the Hawaii Farm to School Hui, a program under HIPHI.


Lori Fulton, the professor of the ITE course, invited Millikan and Bernal to help familiarize students – pre-service teachers – with and learn how to use gardens when they teach classes of their own.


The goal of the ITE course is to teach students how to teach science at an elementary level. Fulton has taught this course for seven years, but this was the first time she took students to a school garden.

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The three took the students to UH Manoa’s Children’s Center, which primarily serves 2- to 5-year-old children of university students and employees. The center sits behind the campus’ media center on the corner of University Avenue and Dole Street and has a large garden of its own.


Payapa and breadfruit trees provide shade and climbing obstacles for the students. Basil, sweet potato and rosemary plants line the playground’s walkways. Halves of plastic bottles filled with soil hang on racks outside. The students plant everything in the garden, and when they are not planting in it, they explore it.


Leilani Au, the center’s director, and Millikan were the masterminds behind the garden at UHMCC, starting it in 2006, when Millikan’s children were enrolled.


Most of UHMCC’s garden plants are donated, and they help serve the center’s philosophy of “preparing kids for life.” Children are allowed to learn about the world by navigating it via their own curiosity.


The students spent about an hour and a half in the garden, taking turns composting, harvesting and cooking. They were also encouraged to get their hands dirty and sift through the center’s vermiculture center, or the “worm pit.”

Debbie Millkan encourages college students training to be teachers not to be afraid of getting dirty.

Interview - ITE Class at UHM Children Center
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Although college-age students might already have their minds made up about touching bugs or dirt, Fulton wanted to expose them to it, so they could get used to the sensations and ideas around the activity.


“It was pretty evident that they weren’t very comfortable,” she said, but did not seem discouraged. She said it might mean they should have more exposure.


Millikan leaned over six aluminum trays on a table filled with dirt. Several students were huddled around her when she pointed out a brown, giant maggot-like bug in one of them.


“It’s the larva stage of a soldier fly,” she said. “And you don’t really see them because they come out at night.”


Au watched from afar as the students hesitated to touch the larva or any of the other bugs and even the dirt.


“They didn’t play outside enough when they were little, so they don’t value it,” she said.


Au said that many people today are disconnected from their environment because they spend less time outside or grew up without a backyard to play in.


“A lot of them lived in apartments," she said. "They hardly had experience with nature.” 


This might be even more of an issue for cash-strapped university students in Hawaii, where cost of living is among the highest in the country.


“I’m not going to make you touch things you don’t want to,” Millikan said to her students. “But you gotta not get ew-y icky in front of the kids. Let them be excited.”

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The UH Manoa Children's Center is home to a variety of plants but also hens and guinea pigs—all of which the students can interact with in some compacity.

Au understands that there is still a long way to go when it comes to making school gardens a part of school curricula, but sees that the idea of having them is changing.


“I think we’ve made progress from, ‘it’s unusual,”’ she said. “To now, it’s becoming more matter-of-fact that there are gardens.”


With school gardens slowly being introduced into K-12 education, they appear to have a firm hold in the state.


Kitamori said that since he graduated from UH West Oahu last December, interest in the program he was in has grown.


“I’m like their third graduate from that degree,” he said. “I think they got about 60 or 70 people enrolled, so there’s going to be a whole lot more people like me coming out into the world.”

Photo by Mark Ladao

Video by Mark Ladao

Photo by Mark Ladao

Photo by Mark Ladao

Photo by Mark Ladao

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