Edible Learning Labs

When people start to grow tomatoes, they probably don’t realize that they’re taking part in one of the most overlooked solutions for anxiety and mental illness that is yet to be embraced by the general public. Furthermore, the claim could be made that incorporating gardening into a child’s development at an early age, in a similar way as music and sports develop certain appreciations, would form habits that would remain therapeutic and serve as a gateway to future life skills that are crucial for mature human development. The cultivation of fresh herbs and vegetables provides young people with the experience and knowledge necessary for developing a healthy understanding of wellness and nutrition and also contributes to better meal preparation. Therefore, Edible Learning Labs that also function as community urban gardens would be beneficial for early and middle childhood development in education because they would provide practical learning opportunities for students and residents by promoting physical activity, healthy eating, environmental stewardship, and multicultural connections for people of all ages and walks of life.

In an interview with Seth J. Gillihan, Joe Lamp’l (the Joe behind Joe Gardener®) listed “10 Mental Health Benefits of Gardening.” His personal experience, along with numerous studies about the positive effects of time outside, sparked his curiosity regarding the many benefits of gardening which resulted in the before mentioned list. It would seem that due to that awareness, the implementation of agricultural practices in early childhood development would only serve as a positive, natural, and holistic way for children to receive beneficial life skills such that “moving beyond perfectionism” and “developing a growth mindset,” which are essential to a forward thinking world-view, would be instilled and practiced early to assist them in maintaining good mental and physical health throughout their lives (quoted in Gillihan).

What is an Edible Learning Lab?

In the summer of 2009, a group from the Nashville suburb of Bellevue was inspired to travel to Berkeley, California, to visit the original Edible Schoolyard. Conceived by Alice Waters, a public policy advocate for school lunch reform and universal access to healthy, organic foods, the Edible Schoolyard is a one-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley that operates on a budget of 2.2 million and impacts people all over the world. Teachers and Edible Schoolyard Educators collaborate to integrate the garden into the school’s curriculum, giving students the opportunity for hands-on learning. Students participate in growing, harvesting, and preparing meals with the plants they grow in the garden (Crawford).

Excited about what Edible Schoolyards could mean for their community, the soon-to-be-founders brought back with them the idea of adopting the Edible Schoolyard concept in their local schools. In 2011, the Bellevue Edible Learning Lab (BELL Garden) was started. The Bellevue Middle School in Nashville, Tennessee, encourages students to participate in its Garden Club, which utilizes the BELL Garden. The club’s advertisement claims “participation in school gardens has been shown to improve academic performance, influence better eating habits, and improve mental, physical, and behavioral health!” In an email interview, Christina Crawford, the Manager of the BELL Garden, explained how the garden receives visits from more than just garden club participants. Apparently, the garden causes the most impact “when a science teacher brings her students to the learning lab to learn about life in the soil.”

Additionally, the BELL garden has volunteer Saturdays where the community tends to the garden and takes home produce. Most of their volunteers are college students that need “volunteer hours for the TN Promise Scholarship or college groups, such as fraternities, sororities, alumni groups, etc.” The BELL Garden even had a group of college students from 13 different countries meet in Washington D.C. and travel by bus on a scholarship from Fullbright International to volunteer at the BELL Garden as well as at other gardens all over the United States. Religious and school groups from surrounding states drive to Nashville for weekend visits and volunteer as part of their experience. Crawford expressed that “it’s a lot of fun working and talking with the volunteers and they enjoy the opportunity. They are always thanking us for having them.” The BELL Garden, a 501c nonprofit with a budget of about $25,000 per year, is the only nonprofit that allows families with children as young as four to participate, so church volunteer groups with families often choose the BELL for their gatherings (Crawford).

Dr. Charlotte Reznick, a child educational psychologist and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at UCLA, told Psychology Today that spring is a time of renewal and suggests that children can be directed toward their right path by being connected with their own inner seeds of peace, joy, and love. Reznick suggests they be taught how to “heal the hurts of their personal dark winter–in the present, and from the past.” She makes a strong connection by expressing that “children need to be supported in the development of their potential through the healing power of their own imaginations.”

One technique that Reznick suggests children use is that of developing a magic garden. The magic garden could be literal or figurative, with plants and vegetation acting as symbolic representations, but in a magical garden, children “find themselves surrounded by rainbow light as they walk their special path”… there are beautiful rainbow flowers and singing birds… In front of them exists a large, stunning gate that requires a key for it to be opened that can be found under a rock. Children are then encouraged to notice whether or not their key is gold, silver, or copper. The key has the child’s initials carved on it so she knows it belongs to her and is then encouraged to build and grow her magical space. Children plant whatever they want in this magical and personal terrain. They may even choose to cultivate seeds of peace, joy, happiness, and of calmness. Any qualities that one would like to see increased or brought to life is acknowledged, as this is their own special space to receive from the earth that which they need most. For example, “one eight-year-old little girl received rainbow glasses to help her see her world in a more positive light which also resulted in the decrease of chronic stomach pains. Another child received the gift of a golden heart to help him heal the physical heart-breaking pain he experienced during his parents’ divorce” (Reznick).

Where else can Edible Learning Labs be implemented?

The concept of an Edible Learning Lab isn’t exclusive to psychology and mental health in early childhood education. In 2017, the Boston Medical Center (BMC) began operating a 2658-square-foot farm on a roof terrace to supply the hospital’s kitchen and food pantry with fresh produce. The farm, which took a little under two years to complete, was a concept created by Dave Maffeo and Robert Biggio with the support of BMC’s Office of Development.

The farm harvests 25 different crops, including a variety of greens, herbs, beans, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, scallions, squash, and tomatoes. Watering is controlled by a smartphone, which saves water by monitoring weather conditions and shutting off during the rain. The foliage reduces heating and cooling costs for the building while increasing the life of the roof material, from 15-20 years to 30-40 years. They grow an average of 5,000-7,000 pounds of food and if you’re on the premises and listen closely, you’ll hear a buzz from the farm’s resident bees which provide local honey thanks to two brightly colored urban beehives painted by pediatric patients within the medical center, according to the organization’s website.

It remains to be seen how Edible Learning Labs will contribute to a more sustainable and health conscious existence in the future. However, based on the evidence already presented, it seems like a natural conclusion that these down to earth practices should be incorporated as systems to ensure the best quality of life possible. The possibilities are endless in this new frontier of individualized sustainability. The positive expectations that this wave of consciousness presents is yet to experience its harvest, and it seems the trend itself is still in the spring of its development. As Edible Learning Labs and rooftop growing systems become more common, human understanding will hopefully naturally accept the seemingly obvious benefits of cultivation. May the future remain optimistic and fruitful in the embracing of self-healing through greater awareness and nutrition and may the generations that follow receive the gift of accumulated wisdom cultivated by the curiosity and wonder of those that have gone before.

Works Cited

Bellevue Edible Learning Lab. “BMS Garden Club!” Organization Flyer. Fall 2019. Bell Garden. Organization website. History of Edible Schoolyards page. https://bellgardennashville.org/.

Boston Medical Center. Organization Website. Rooftop Farm page. https://www.bmc.org/nourishing-our-community/rooftop-farm.

Burrows, Sara. “Hospital’s Roftop Garden Provides 7,000 Pounds of Organic Veggies a Year for Patients.” Web blog post. Return to Now. 15 Sept. 2019. https://returntonow.net/2019/09/15/hospitals….

Crawford, Christina. “BMS Garden Club!” Received by Kimberly Lampley, 18 Oct. 2019.

Gillihan, Seth J. “10 Mental Health Benefits of Gardening.” Psychology Today, 19 June 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog….

Reznick, Charlotte. “Spring: Time for a Healing (Garden) for Our Kids.” Psychology Today, 21 March 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog….

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