Shannon Kuhn: A garden for the community tended by West High students

Shannon Kuhn

West High School has gotten its first vegetable garden, thanks to a small group of dedicated students and teachers. The entire harvest this fall will be donated to Bean's Cafe.

"Hand me a potato," Elizabeth Habicht calls out, elbows deep in dirt. She is kneeling in a newly built raised bed, one of six along the edge of the school. It's planting day.

Habicht is part of the International Baccalaureate diploma program at West, which at its core seeks to create a better world through education. Founded in 1968, the IB program is currently offered in 3,806 schools in 146 countries. In addition to West, Palmer High School also offers the IB program.

One of 12 students involved in the project, Habicht has helped in her parents' garden before but never planted on her own.

Behind her sits a truck overflowing with tools and veggie starts. Carrot seeds with names like cosmic purple and red dragon promise a colorful bounty. Onions, scarlet runner beans, rosemary, chard and salad mix await their time to be reunited with the soil.

IB English teacher John Ruhlin watches the planting with a smile. The end of the school year marked his 14th year of teaching at West. He says that there is a service-learning component to the IB program, following the motto of creativity, action and service. "The garden project is the essence of all of those things."

The project wasn't as straightforward as it seems, however. First, along with a committed group of students, Ruhlin needed a teacher who could support the project full-time.

Enter Jenny Kimball, who has 18 years of experience teaching world history. Although not an IB teacher, she has a passion for gardening and a knack for making things happen. After she came on board as an adult mentor, things started to fall into place.

The next item they needed to make the gardens happen was money. A $1,500 grant from the Parent-Teacher-Student Association and another $1,500 from West alumni literally seeded the project. Home Depot donated all the lumber to build the beds.

Gabriel Funk, 17, is a rising senior in the IB program. As he helps put netting over the beds for protection against birds, he tells me how the garden went from an idea to a reality.

"It took a lot of paperwork! We have been designing the garden and writing grants since this past fall. We had a lot of meetings. A lot," he emphasizes with a joking look of despair.

"But when you're out here (at the garden) you can see what you've been working on and it's really cool and all worth it."

Funk says the number-one takeaway skill for him was persistence. "It wasn't always easy to keep up with the idea."

Other skills strengthened from the project were leadership and collaboration, along with geometry (garden calculations took place in IB math class) and writing.

The students had originally designed the garden for a large vacant space behind the school, incorporating art to make it into a vibrant community gathering place.

Plans changed when, a week before building day, they received word that the administration had changed their minds about the space and decided to put additional "relocatable buildings" there instead. Funk says the team was disappointed but nimble and able to construct more traditional beds along the side of the building. The garden is much smaller and less visible now, but for Funk, it's still "really amazing to see it happen."

Over the summer, a different student signs up to water and weed each week. They are all eager to check on its progress, and, of course, to harvest.

Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean's Cafe, is thrilled about the project. She says fresh produce is seen as a luxury item at the Cafe. "We are so grateful for anything fresh and locally grown."

Since 1994, more than 20 million pounds of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits have been donated to food banks across the country through the national Plant a Row for the Hungry program. Bean's Cafe estimates that one pound of fresh produce supplements four meals.

There are an estimated 84 million households with a yard or garden in the U.S. The idea behind this initiative is that if every gardener plants one extra row of vegetables and donates their surplus to local food agencies and soup kitchens, a significant impact can be made on reducing hunger. The West garden joins Huffman Elementary and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School, which both manage school gardens and donate produce to the Food Bank and Bean's Cafe.

Both the students and teachers involved at West hope the garden will continue and even expand. Kimball is optimistic.

"The idea is that this service project will always be here."

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.


Shannon Kuhn
Food & Culture