Beneath a glass-domed sanctuary, growing projects at various stages are underway. A staff member’s starter plant mingles with students’ cuttings. Sprouts of cilantro, mint, and basil are beginning to crown. “When I came to the school four years ago, this place was in shambles and not being used at all, and we’re still bringing it back from that,” science teacher Cathy Herman explained as she led me into a vivarium at the core of the Ginn Academy, an all-boys school located in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood. Outside, a group of gardeners rolls up their starched sleeves and loosens their red bow ties in anticipation of this mid-May afternoon’s seed sowing. The six raised beds, built by the students, will yield carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, kale, cantaloupe, and peppers—bell in a trio of colors—along with banana and cayenne.
“Eventually we plan on planting berry bushes, and hope to create a salad bar in the cafeteria a few times a month with items we harvest from the garden,” Cathy says. “We had a really productive year last year, so the kids were really excited and motivated about it again this year.”
The garden club at Ginn Academy is part of the Living Labs program of HealthCorps, a nationwide initiative that provides high-need high schools with a health and wellness curriculum. A full-time coordinator is placed in the school to mentor students, teach health-related workshops, conduct health fairs, work with the school’s science department, and perform research with students. Ginn Academy is the only Ohio school, and one of 28 throughout the U.S., working with the nationwide nonprofit.
Health and wellness initiatives are woven into the Cleveland Municipal School District curriculum. The garden club enables the young men to solidify the concepts by putting what they are learning into practice, says Megan Mukenge, Ginn Academy’s HealthCorps coordinator. Last year, Ginn Academy won one of Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s America’s Healthiest Schools Award —its third consecutive year achieving the honor, which celebrates schools that are creating a healthier environment. Megan credits Ginn Academy’s garden club as contributing toward the recognition.
“The club increases access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which is important, especially in this area,” she says. “There are not a lot of supermarkets or places where the students can get fresh foods.”
Members of the student body reap the benefits of the garden club’s bounty. Kale smoothies are doled out to classmates at lunchtime. Parents are invited to take home produce bags from the first semester open house. Staff members enjoy salads with vine-ripened tomatoes and cucumbers on development day.
For some, the gardening club is as much about planting seeds for a healthier future as it is about strengthening roots. “When I was younger, I used to plant tomatoes in my grandma’s backyard,” junior Juliun Thornton says. “She gardens a lot. Now that I know more, I’ll be able to help her.”