Alternative learning environments, like youth residential treatment homes and juvenile treatment centers, provide valuable services for young people across Arkansas. Adding a school garden could provide both therapeutic and learning opportunities for students who attend them.
Farm to school is an avenue for all students. The Arkansas Farm to School Collaborative believes that all students, regardless of where they learn, should have the opportunity to participate in farm to school activities. The Farm to School team at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture is available to help with guidance and funding opportunities for all learning environments.
To participate, all an alternative learning environment needs to do is offer an activity related to one of the pillars of farm to school: school gardens, education, and local procurement. One example could be integrating healthy, local foods into their curriculum. This could include nutrition classes, partnerships with local farms, and of course building a garden of any kind.
Gardening and outdoor activities have strong, positive impacts on students in alternative learning environments. Plants can be used as a therapeutic tool to improve mental health, as gardens have been shown to reduce depression and stress. Most importantly, research by Texas A&M has shown that a few minutes outside surrounded by plants, flowers, and trees can stimulate the mind, boosting the ability to focus and concentrate.
For many students, gardening can be a great tool for bonding and teamwork. After working outside for a few weeks, they will see the fruits of their labor, which provides gratification for their efforts. The skills learned in the garden are also applicable to careers and their future. Budgeting, time-management, critical thinking, and problem solving are just a few of the skills taught through school gardens. Hands-on experience in a garden, as well as with local farmers, growers, and community members, can open students to new job opportunities that they were not aware existed.
There are 11 alternative learning environments currently listed on the Arkansas School Garden Map. Arkansas Consolidated High School has 100% participation in its garden project. Their program encourages students to acquire responsibility, self-esteem, motivation, and self-confidence in the production of growing something. Their garden was established six years ago and has since expanded to contain raised beds, vegetables, and herbs.
ACCESS Academy uses its garden to assist students with developmental disabilities. Through their program students learn about nutrition, how to grow healthy produce, how to work together as a team, and develop social and leisure skills, which in turn promotes healthy lifestyles physically, mentally, and socially. Their garden was established almost 20 years ago and features in-ground beds, raised beds, hoop houses, chickens, fruits, and vegetables.
All students, in every learning environment, should have access to farm to school education. Farm to school provides valuable life skills for children of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. The value added to an institution through a school garden is immeasurable. Visit arfarmtoschool.org to learn more about offering farm to school programming at your alternative learning environment.