Every Kid Deserves a Learning Garden

We are building 75 more Learning Gardens (in addition to the 38 we have already built) in schools across LA county.


Please describe yourself.

Solo actor (just us on this project!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

We make beautiful, playful, versatile, durable and affordable Learning Gardens that can be easily installed in any school.

Does your project impact Los Angeles County?

Yes (benefits a population of LA County)

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

Central LA

East LA

South LA

San Fernando Valley

Long Beach

What is your idea/project in more detail?

Recognizing the educational and health benefits of school gardens, the California DOE launched the Garden in Every School Initiative in 1995. Yet schools in LA have struggled to implement lasting school garden programs, and many at-risk schools have been left without gardens.

We work to make sure that every child in LA has a school garden, no matter where they live.

We've built 38 successful Learning Gardens in LA, and are now working to scale our impact by building an additional 75 gardens in LA this year. Our plan is to eventually influence district-wide decision-making to ensure that Learning Gardens are as easy and commonplace to install as any other piece of playground equipment, becoming a staple of LA’s education system.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

To implement this project, we will install 75 more gardens in LA in the next twelve months.

By augmenting our existing 38 Learning Gardens with an additional 75 gardens, we will have over 100 gardens installed in Los Angeles. This presence will enable us to enter into larger conversations with district decision-makers and funders about policy changes that can fundamentally change the role that schools play in promoting healthful learning and play for young Angelenos now and for years to come.

We work with community members, landscape architects, researchers, designers, policy makers, teachers, parents, and kids to revolutionize the concept of a school garden entirely. Our Learning Gardens are a lightweight, durable, modular, and interactive, designed as both an outdoor classroom and living play place, that is also easily customized to fit a wide variety of school needs. Our beds can be placed on asphalt, on rooftops, in school entrances, and even safely on top of toxic soil, and are also ADA-compliant handicap accessible.

To build these gardens, we will raise funds through a network of like-minded foundations, donors, businesses, and organizations. With proper funding, we will be able to increase garden construction and build our team capacity in LA. We will continue working with local partners in the construction of our gardens and in the sourcing of our materials such as soil, seeds, and irrigation parts, and will also be incorporating data from our evaluations to make continual improvements upon our gardens and our services.

LA is the second largest school district in the country. If we can build a successful garden model here, not only can we make LA the healthiest city in America, we can also make LA a model city for others to look to when seeking to significantly impact the health and future of our nation’s children and families.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to LIVE today? In 2050?

Obesity is one of the biggest health concerns facing LA today, especially children. Recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that nearly one in every three children in America today are obese or overweight, putting them at significant risk of developing serious health problems and positioning our nation for a future of crippling debt and disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, unhealthy lifestyles marked by poor food choices and inactivity are the leading cause of obesity in children. Latino youths suffer disproportionately from obesity, and LA alone contains 4.9 million Hispanics (9% of the nation’s entire Hispanic population).

Armed with this knowledge, we believe that there is no better way to promote a healthy lifestyle for our youth than by ensuring that all young Angelenos have access to a high-quality school garden, designed with their needs in mind. By teaching kids about how food grows in a setting that is playful, accessible, and safe, we help set them up for healthy success now and in the future.

Learning Gardens connect kids to real food, helping them learn to prize snap peas over sodas, carrots over candy, and peppers over poptarts. In a Learning Garden pilot study, we found that students increased their awareness of nutrition goals by 13.7%, and increased their preference for vegetables found in the garden by 12%. Learning Gardens provide exposure to a world of healthy food choices before unthinkable to many students, and help them to take necessary first steps towards living active and healthy lives.

The health benefits of school gardening are not just physical. Over 60 years of research demonstrates the benefits of school gardens on children’s mental health as well, helping kids deal more effectively with stress and resist violent activity. In our own pilot study, we found a statistically significant reduction in competitive play around Learning Gardens and a complete absence of violent activity around the Learning Gardens (despite violence occurring in other areas of the playground).

And most importantly, by working strategically to bring Learning Gardens to scale, we make sure that these opportunities will be made available to all children and families in LA, not just a select few.

In 2050, there will be thousands of Learning Gardens in communities across LA, fostering new generations of healthy thinkers who know how to grow, harvest, and share nutritious food.

Whom will your project benefit?

Our Learning Gardens help foster a more positive and healthy educational environment for students. Over 75% of our students qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch and over 75% of students are either Black or Latino/Hispanic. Our research shows that students with Learning Gardens value and enjoy them, with 95% of students reporting that they want a Learning Garden at their school and with 40% of those students visiting the Learning Garden daily.

Our Learning Gardens are designed so that the children who use them feel a sense of ownership. With curvilinear raised beds that can be painted or mosaiced, and interlocking pieces that can include benches, lights, shade sails, sundials, and more, teachers can let children freely explore the garden without fear of trampling plants, and kids can interact with soil, seeds, and plants at eye-level.

Learning Gardens are also attractive and practical outdoor classrooms for teachers, complete with seating, shading, and a comprehensive workshop series with materials that help teachers integrate lessons on nutrition, health, science, math, technology, art, and a host of other subjects into their curriculum.

With the addition of another 75 gardens in LA, we will be able to expand our offerings to comprise more comprehensive teacher workshops that will help our teachers better integrate the Learning Garden into their lesson plans. Having a wider variety of schools and teachers attending these workshops also helps foster more collaboration and sharing of ideas between schools.

By working within the school district to install gardens at scale, we will be able to unlock the potential to have our workshops and trainings count toward teacher’s Professional Development credits, helping teachers fit our workshops into their existing schedules.

Our project will also benefit families. Not only do families have the opportunity to get involved in the garden itself through build and harvest days and volunteer programs, they also benefit from the addition of the Learning Gardens to existing school, after school, and summer programs. In our pilot study, we found that 96% of parents surveyed wanted a Learning Garden at their school.

Designed by certified landscape architects, Learning Gardens also serve to beautify communities, and are as attractive as they are practical.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Three factors that have been critical to our past success and will be crucial in our project going forward have been found in partnerships that:

1. Take advantage of existing school infrastructure.

We have a deep relationship with Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) via their Sustainable Environment Enhancement Developments for Schools (SEEDS) program. SEEDS is a $4 million bond fund set up for green projects in schools that awards funds in installments. New installments can only be awarded after existing funds are spent.

To ensure effective deployment of these funds, we will work both in tandem with LAUSD and our schools to apply for funding to be used towards the construction of a Learning Garden, significantly reducing the cost of a garden to the school and making sure that funds from the bond are awarded rapidly so that more funds can be released and more schools can have access to them.

We will work with LAUSD with the intent to fund 60 Learning Gardens together. We have also worked with LAUSD on using our gardens specifically for nutrition education and obesity prevention, helping them to use our gardens as part and parcel of their messaging and curriculum.

2. Compliment our gardens with quality programming

We partner with a number of organizations that have developed excellent curriculum that can be put to use in our gardens. For example, we have partnered with Enrich LA and GrowingGreats on pilot projects to bring their curriculum to bear on our Learning Gardens in Compton and Hawthorne.

We also partner with after and summer school programs to ensure our gardens get the most use possible. Some of our programming partners include Beyond the Bell (an after school program) and the Child Development Center (a summer camp organization).

Through this project, we will be seeking new curriculum and programming partners to strengthen the efficacy of our gardens.

3. Include highly influential people and organizations

We work with The California Endowment Fund through a substantive grant to install gardens in schools that fall outside of the LAUSD. We will continue nurturing this partnership and others in hopes of unlocking future funds.

Our organizational ties to LA-based companies like Space X enable us to reach a targeted population of highly influential individuals and organizations, building our network through these channels.

How will your project impact the LA2050 LIVE metrics?

Access to healthy food

Obesity rates

Prevalence of adverse childhood experience (Dream Metric)

Percentage of LA communities that are resilient (Dream Metric)

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

Healthy Food: By having a Learning Garden in school, children not only increase the access that they have to the healthy food growing in the garden on a daily basis, they are also gain the invaluable skill of learning how that food is grown. Children bring these new skills home to their parents, and eventually to their own children.

Obesity Rates: When a child plants a tiny seed in our Learning Garden, they also plant a seed of change in their own lives. Just as a sunflower seed the size of a thumb-nail can grow to be twelve feet tall, the seeds of change planted in our children when we give them the tools to make healthier food choices can grow into a world of difference when it comes to long-term trends in nutrition and overall health.

There is no lack of research demonstrating that lifestyle choices are the top causes of obesity nationwide, and so to address growing obesity rates, we focus on promoting healthy behaviors among youth. Increasing outdoor exposure and activity, and building gardens that help foster healthy food choices in and out of school, as well as promoting a general culture of food connection and understanding are three of the ways our gardens impact obesity rates. Our pilot study showed great results in increased fruit and vegetable preference among students with a Learning Garden (12% increase) and we are currently in the late stages of a joint research study with two major national foundations to study the effects of our gardens specifically on obesity over the course of the next three years.

Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experience: Putting a garden in a school does more than simply provide a place for children to plant seeds and watch them grow. One of the findings from our initial pilot study that we are most proud of is that competitive play was reduced after the introduction of the Learning Garden, and that even though aggressive behavior was noted in other parts of the schoolyard, aggressive behavior was completely absent in the Learning Garden.

Turning asphalt and pea gravel into beautiful school gardens does so much more than increase childhood food and plant awareness. It also allows students to connect with themselves and others, providing a needed respite from stress, and a space free from aggression and violence. Gardens for many students can therefore reduce the prevalence of adverse experiences, helping to transform schools from a place of anxiety to a place of curiosity, excitement, and enjoyment.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

Success for us means getting our gardens to scale in LA, accompanied by the robust program support and evaluation that has characterized our previous success. In order to maximize our impact, we pioneered a three-pronged approach to evaluation, which we will implement in LA:

First, our evaluation starts before garden installation even begins as part of our culture of research and collaboration. We have dedicated team members consistently reading the multitudes of reports available from top-notch institutions on the efficacy, shortcomings, and overall effects of school gardens. We remain active and alert to developments and new ideas percolating through our circles and communities to ensure our work remains not simply relevant, but cutting-edge as well.

Second, we have a robust internal evaluation system, headed by a full-time, trained evaluator on staff. The community outreach team meets quarterly to review all of the internal data that is collected. These meetings have led to the creation of tools such as the Milestone Matrix, TKC’s educational newsletter with seasonal action items, and the Learning Garden Coordinator position. TKC processes teacher feedback and makes changes so that it can maximize its impact and connect kids to real food in a cost effective manner.

Our product team also works closely with facilities personnel at each school to ensure seamless integration of the gardens with existing infrastructure, and this provides us valuable insight on how best to work with schools to make it as easy as possible to install gardens.

Third, we work with research institutions to evaluate our gardens quantitatively. In 2012, we partnered with the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center to design and pilot a study of our Learning Gardens in Chicago. We are currently in discussions with Anschutz to bridge the evaluation to LA so that we may continue to incorporate those findings into our work and craft even more effective strategies.

We are also in the late stages of a proposal with two major national foundations to conduct a revolutionary pilot study, the first of its kind, catalyzing research on the specific mechanisms by which gardens in schools impact obesity rates. The study will examine our gardens specifically in LA.

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

Lesson One: Every Student Deserves a Garden

School gardening programs have been the subject of thorough research for over 60 years, and have consistently been found to significantly improve children’s health outcomes, both in terms of nutritive food consumption and physical activity, and in terms of mental health: children who have had access to school gardens have been shown to exhibit better social and life skills, develop healthier responses to stress, and resist violent activity.

Over the past three years, installing 180 gardens in LA, Denver, and Chicago, we have been witness to the incredible transformative power of a school garden. Our experiences, in the context of other research and reports on the health benefits of school gardens not simply for students but entire communities, have been overwhelmingly positive. Our steadfast belief in the ability of gardens to significantly impact lives has been a driving force behind our work and a cornerstone of this project to use Learning Gardens to help make LA the healthiest city in which to live.

Lesson Two: Making School Gardens Work is No Easy Task

Research suggests that long-term school gardens have struggled to take hold in LA and elsewhere mainly because school gardens have historically been viewed as an optional, as an add-on, and not seen as critical to learning nor development. Thus, even though there are multitudes of school gardening groups across the country, they are organized piecemeal, often unable to reach the most at-risk populations, and incapable of providing the scalability, versatility, and affordability needed make school gardening a standard of education in LA and across the country.

Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting the use of school gardens, only a fraction of schools in the LA have gardening programs. Moreover, those few schools that do have gardens often fall prey to funding difficulties, community disengagement, and toxic garden contamination that eventually render many gardens fallow and useless.

We believe that there is too much good to be done by a garden, and too many incredible people and organizations working to put gardens in schools, for this reality to be acceptable. That is why our strategy involves innovative thinking around garden scalability and making gardens within a framework that ensure they are as easy to afford, install, and use as possible.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

With three years of experience guiding our way, we are confident that implementing our project of building 75 more gardens in LA is an achievable goal.

In 2013, we built 100 Learning Gardens in Chicago, 80 of which were in partnership with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. We plan to bring that experience to bear on our scaling efforts in LA, although we will be modifying our approach to best fit the needs and existing structures of our communities here.

Our existing community ties, strong partnerships with LAUSD and other districts, and the fact that we already have 38 Learning Gardens successfully operating in LA county all make LA a natural place to scale. In the same way that we built the majority of our gardens in Chicago through a partnership with the Mayor, we will build the majority of our gardens in LA this year through a partnership with the SEEDS fund at LAUSD.

With a full-time staff positioned in LA, and a long-time LA resident serving as President of our organization, we have strong ties both professional and personal in the Los Angeles community, and will be relying on those ties--along with positive recommendations and connections from the schools in which we have already worked--to help drive our engagement and make our goal a reality.

As mentioned, our substantive connections with organizations like Space X and the California Endowment Fund also help ensure that our goal is reasonable, in that we will be able to leverage these--and other--partnerships to raise the capital needed to achieve our vision.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

In our three years working with Learning Gardens, we have encountered no shortage of major challenges. We have strategies that ensure successful implementation of our Learning Gardens in spite of--indeed, because of--these challenges.

The first major challenge has been navigating the often bureaucratic world of school district decision-making with a model that seeks to innovate quickly. For example, with our SEEDS schools, we deal with a huge amount of paperwork, and have re-structured our team internally in order to handle it. With our plan to install another 60 schools via SEEDS funding, we anticipate a much larger amount of work that will need to be done on our end simply to process all of the documents required of the partnership.

To cope with those new demands, we have significantly re-organized and expanded our team in recent months, designating two California-specific education coordinators, as well as a full-time admissions and funding coordinator. We hope to eventually systematize these types of partnerships, positioning our work as more routine, with less cumbersome processes involved in our endeavors.

Another challenge is LA's geographic sprawl. We aim to have clusters of Learning Gardens gathered together so that we can offer workshops that more teachers and community members can attend that are shorter distances from their schools and homes.

Currently our gardens are distributed across LA county, and our plan to combat this challenge is to first get our gardens to scale so that we can begin to engage in more meaningful discussions with communities and school districts that have some experience with our gardens already. After we have achieved that scale, we can use those inroads to create clusters of gardens around them.

Finally, there is no lack of funding both in LA and on a national level, but a final major challenge that we face is finding the right kind of funding for our organization. We see our funding partnerships as being just as much about raising necessary capital as about cultivating needed connections and facilitating a sustainable coalition of like-minded organizations striving towards common goals. As our work continues to grow and evolve, we will be careful to maintain the integrity of our gardens and of our partnerships, to ensure maximal long-term impact for students, teachers, parents, and community members alike.