The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.
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Policymakers, non-profits, and corporations understand that kids choose their “dream job” early. The choices often depend on current topics of high interest when children attend school. Climate change is one such subject and can be engaging for young people because it is so multi-faceted.
One dimension of climate change, and how it can be brought under control, involves nature’s ways of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – specifically, through absorption of CO2 by plants and trees.
Ciara Byrne and Kim MacQuarrie of Las Vegas, Nevada wanted to underline the importance and wonder of this natural process to school children in grades K-5, especially those from low-income families, in a very hands-on way – by enlisting the students in planting gardens. Their vehicle for doing so is Green Our Planet (GOP), a non-profit they started in 2013.
Ciara and Kim focused on elementary schools that lacked the funds to implement school garden programs. Initially, the two founders focused on setting up an after-school program, since Nevada did not have a curriculum for school gardens. Green Our Planet raised additional funds to hire 12 Clark County School District (CCSD) teachers and four farmers to build such a curriculum.
CCSD eventually certified an 800-page document, allowing the schools to incorporate the school garden program into their daily curriculum. In 2019, Green Our Planet’s Outdoor Garden Classroom STEM Program and Hydroponics STEM Program became the first school garden programs in the United States to be accredited by STEMworks, an organization that helps companies, states, and individuals make smart investments in their communities by evaluating and cataloging programs that meet rigorous and results-driven design principles.
Green Our Plant has become much more than a school gardening program. however. Today, GOP has installed over 275 outdoor and hydro gardens, taught over 3500 teachers, and operates in 10 states. Pre-COVID, GOP conducted over 200 farmer markets per year, where the students sold their crops and connected with members outside of their communities, including chefs, farmers, and bankers, all to further the students’ understanding of agriculture, health, and business.
GOP is continuing to build these bridges in isolated communities for students at an early age, promoting empathy through an environmental conservation lens. Altogether, since its inception, GOP has helped over 140,000 students.
Bynes has seen the power of nature first-hand and how it has been a cornerstone for strength and perseverance in her life. Raised in Ireland, she had the privilege of being surrounded by nature’s beauty. At an early age, her connection with nature saved her life after suffering a traumatic incident that made her question her willingness to live. Her inspiration for Green Our Planet stems from her desire to do something positive to help address the climate change problem in tangible ways with which she has first-hand experience.
Knowing that climate change disproportionately will affect minorities in the U.S., Byrnes also could empathize with marginalized groups that aren’t afforded opportunities to access nature easily. In the United Kingdom, “Irish people are not considered white,” she reports. Byrnes says she was only considered “white” after moving to the U.S. Her upbringing in Ireland created a shared experience that drove her to drive change in communities to which she related. The school garden program brought nature to the students and allowed them to connect with an ecosystem that was initially beyond their reach.
Byrnes recognizes that funders understandably require some evidence that a project is working. Gaining that evidence, however, can be expensive and time consuming, and can stretch organizations like GOP which must continue operating while constantly seeking more funds.
Nonetheless, one study documents the positive impact GOP is having on students. In 2015, Dr. Jennifer Pharr with other colleagues conducted a study to understand the impact of Green Our Planet’s outdoor school garden program on students locally. The study reported that as a result of the program, 92 percent of educators saw improved student performance in nutrition knowledge, 80 percent saw improvements in science and mathematics, 76 percent noted improvement in language arts, and 78 percent reported an increase in community engagement [Schneider, Pharr and Bungum].
Currently, GOP obtains funds from one federal program, SNAP, while donors and foundations provide the rest. The GOP model is replicable in other locations. Educators and non-profit entrepreneurs can be inspired by GOP’s example.
Schneider, Stephanie, Jennifer Pharr and Timothy Bungum (2017), “Impact of School Garden Participation on the Health Behaviors of Children,” Health Behavior and Policy Review, 4(1), 46-52, http://dx.doi.org/10.14485/HBPR.4.1.5.