Back to school with the '5 P's'

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In 2008, Alice Waters pioneered a modern revival of the outdoor classroom model with her book, “Edible Schoolyards.” It has had a profound impact on my own work creating New Pioneer Food Co-op’s Soilmates garden education program for children. New Pi gives me $20,000 each year to help 40 corridor schools with seed money for veggie gardens, greenhouses and composting systems from cafeteria food waste.

Waters has reinforced the wisdom of connecting all curricula — math, science, literacy, social studies, art — in the garden context. Food 101’s prerequisite is Soil 101: healthy soil first, then plants, then food and oxygen for people and animals.

For the past two academic years, a growing coalition of parents and citizens in my home district of Iowa City has raised concerns with public officials on “The 5 Ps”: Pesticides, Projectiles, Pollinators, Predators and Priorities. Let’s consider each one.

Pesticides: They, along with herbicides, are being applied on schoolgrounds, and don’t need to be. Much safer alternatives exist through OMRI (Organic Management Research Institute), not to mention good ‘ol fashioned weed whacking. We’re told the district can’t afford those options. I don’t accept that. In fact, we can show cost savings with organic methods. And here’s an idea: wouldn’t it be amazing to seek certification, and be the nation’s first certified organic schoolgrounds?!

Projectiles: Apple trees, and other fruit species, are prohibited, citing their danger as potential projectile weapons. C’mon. Anything is a potential projectile. Banning fruit trees is not the answer. Educating people about their proper uses is. Segregation of orchards on school property is a reasonable compromise we’re willing to concede. The logo of ICCSD is an apple, by the way. (A teachable moment on the definition of irony?) Baseballs are projectiles as well, but I don’t hear anyone calling for the elimination of that sport.

Pollinators: Biodiverse plants that attract bees are to be reduced because of the possibility of bee stings. Yes, that is a possibility. For which EpiPens are available in the event of anaphylactic shock. Pollination, essential for food at a time when bee species are threatened, is taught in school, but then children are given the mixed message of leaving school into a sterile outdoors. Almost every plant in a school garden is a pollinator.

Predators: If a plant is determined to be tall enough for a potential child predator to hide behind, it could be dangerous. This alarmist rule would effectively eliminate all schoolgrounds to turf grass only. I obviously honor safety and liability concerns. But many of these are fear-driven solutions looking for problems.

Priorities: More often than not, we don’t have a budget crisis. We have a priorities crisis. The money is there. How it’s being spent is the issue. Football fields are simply more valuable to most administrators than school gardens. We don’t have a level playing field. The 20K New Pioneer provides for edible educational landscapes is a rounding error in the budget of ICCSD. I would suggest that the district could, at the very least, match that funding level.

We are trying to build, not burn, bridges in good faith. But it takes two to tango. Thousands of school districts throughout the country are embracing, not restricting, the outdoor classroom. Let’s catch up and lead. 5 of the 7 school board seats are up for grabs this fall in ICCSD. A question I have for all candidates is, “Where do you stand on the 5 Ps?”

• Scott Koepke is the founder and director of Soilmates, a garden education service for children sponsored by New Pioneer Food Co-op. He also serves on the board of directors for the Free Lunch Program. Comments: skoepke@newpi.coop

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