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When Boston’s public schools closed in March, their gardens went untended. Then a volunteer effort grew.

The Growing Resilience Schoolyard Project jumped in to help feed the community

From left: Andrés Carbona-McGovern; his mother, Carolina Castillo-Carbona; and father, Javier Carbona, worked in the garden alongside project organizer Lauren Ockene at Hyde Park’s Another Course to College high school.
From left: Andrés Carbona-McGovern; his mother, Carolina Castillo-Carbona; and father, Javier Carbona, worked in the garden alongside project organizer Lauren Ockene at Hyde Park’s Another Course to College high school.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

When Boston Public Schools closed in mid-March because of COVID-19, schoolyard gardens sat untended. On a Zoom session later that month, a group of teachers proposed to restore the neglected gardens and begin growing food for their communities. About two months later, the volunteer group was 70 members strong, and cleanup and planting at 14 schools commenced. By early August, greens and other vegetables were ready for picking.

The grass-roots effort was organized by Lauren Ockene, a teacher at Brookline’s Pierce School and avid gardener, initially assisted by a few urban gardening experts, and coined The Growing Resilience Schoolyard Project. Its primary goal was to take advantage of an unused resource — the school gardens — to grow food for local families at a time of increasing need. A second goal, and related benefit, was improving the soil and aesthetic appeal of the gardens so they would be used and enjoyed by students and teachers when school was back in session. “Now more than ever, outdoor learning is full of potential and has positive impacts on students academically, emotionally, and physically,” says Ockene.

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The two months of planning included gaining the necessary permissions, which required compliance with new COVID safety regulations. BPS sustainability and environmental resources manager Katherine Walsh helped pave the way. “We supported the mission of donating food to people who might have food access issues,” she says.

Carolina Castillo-Carbona secured compost while working with raised-bed gardens.
Carolina Castillo-Carbona secured compost while working with raised-bed gardens.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

June arrived with a strong sense of urgency to get seedlings in the ground in time for the summer growing season. Word spread quickly of the need for gardeners and helpers, and Ockene’s husband, David Weinstein, a teacher at Boston Teachers Union School, coordinated the growing list of volunteers. Fourteen schools were selected and a lead gardener was assigned to each location. Walsh said they chose schools that already had raised beds (no new construction was allowed during COVID) and where no other gardening organization was involved. (Green City Growers and CitySprouts manage about two dozen BPS gardens.) Neighborhood diversity was important, as was the availability of nearby volunteers. Unfortunately, students were unable to participate because of COVID restrictions, which included social distancing requirements.

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Carolina Castillo-Carbona, a BPS elementary school teacher, volunteered to lead the effort at Hyde Park’s Another Course to College, a high school close to her home. She and her husband and three sons cleaned up the garden beds and planted eggplant, peppers, cherry tomatoes, and basil. “With the pandemic, we wanted to get involved in something meaningful as a family and give back to the community,” says Castillo-Carbona.

Jocelyn Vache, a teacher at Boston International Newcomers Academy in Dorchester, worked with a nearby resident to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, kale, and herbs. They’re giving the produce to BINcA families who need food assistance. Vache hopes to have a few students help with bagging and distributing food in the fall.

Freshly harvested produce.
Freshly harvested produce.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

At Brighton’s Edison K-8 School, a small team led by Don Gianniny, a current paraprofessional at Edison and longtime BPS teacher, restored the school’s five beds, first weeding and screening the soil to get rid of all the rocks, then adding a thick layer of compost. The group planted seedlings for green beans, cucumbers, collards, onions, and more. “What I loved about this was all these different people getting involved from the schools and the community and doing something constructive,” he says. “Our group will keep working with the gardens through the fall whether school is open or not. If school is open, maybe classes can be involved.”

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At the start of summer, the 12 raised beds at Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan were in sad shape when Anna Jacobs and a few others pulled countless weeds and planted green beans, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, and herbs. Jacobs had been working as a FoodCorps service member at Roxbury’s Tobin School when COVID ended the school year prematurely. She volunteered to manage the Mattahunt garden because it was within biking distance of her home. FoodCorps is a national organization whose service members engage students in hands-on cooking and gardening projects and work with the whole school community to promote healthy food.

“Children have a natural curiosity about very basic things,” says Jacobs. “And exposure to gardening makes them less resistant to eating healthy foods.” And, she said, fresh produce is a luxury to many kids.

The Growing Resilience project received a small grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, money used to purchase compost, hay for mulching, and a few needed tools (although most gardeners used their own). A GoFundMe fund-raiser yielded about $1,000 to cover various expenses. Seedlings were donated by The Neighborhood Farm in Wayland, The New Garden Society of Boston, Brookline’s Allendale Farm, and a few individual gardeners. Black Earth Compost provided 12 cubic yards of compost at a substantial discount.

Each week’s harvest is being donated to pantries in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale. Ockene estimates that by the end of September they will have harvested about 300 pounds of vegetables. “Pretty good for small gardens that didn’t even begin until June!” she says.

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BPS sustainability manager Walsh says, “Our plan is to work together through the fall, make sure all the food is harvested, and then transition to school-based leadership.”

Ockene believes Growing Resilience accomplished its two primary goals and reaped a tertiary benefit: Promoting volunteerism for a community-based effort that supports local, urban agriculture. “Most of the volunteers had never been involved in growing food for others,” says Ockene. “People love doing something that’s hands-on and helps other people, especially in this crappy time when the teachers can’t do the work they love.”

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.

Carolina Castillo-Carbona harvested peppers.
Carolina Castillo-Carbona harvested peppers.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com