farm to school

Brussels sprouts, anyone? School gardens grow knowledge for Memphis kids lacking fresh food

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Katie Wilson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture admires Kingsbury High School's edible garden while touring the Memphis school with teachers and students.

Sylvia Pugh didn’t want anything to do with Brussels sprouts before joining the garden club this year at Kingsbury High School in northeast Memphis.

Now, the Kingsbury senior not only knows how to grow and cook the leafy green vegetable, but also has worked with a wide range of other crops, from turnip greens to soybeans to watermelon.

Sylvia Pugh, 17, joined the garden club at Kingsbury High School to learn how to garden for herself.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Sylvia Pugh joined the garden club at Kingsbury High School to learn how to garden for herself.

Sylvia’s nutritional transformation is noteworthy in a city where tens of thousands of students don’t have access to fresh produce at home, losing out on both their nutritional value and the enjoyment of smelling and tasting farm-to-table foods. It also is a source of daily sustenance for many students who come to school hungry.

“I saw my friends would come into class with food from the garden to take home,” said Sylvia, 17, of Kingsbury’s 3-year-old garden club, which includes a greenhouse and edible garden. “I want to be able to have my own garden when I’m older to provide for my family and grow healthier food. I feel like I’m going to know how to do that.”

Farm-to-school programs are in 51 percent of Tennessee districts, including Shelby County Schools, honored Monday as the state’s winner of the “One in a Melon” award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As part of the award, Kingsbury and three other Memphis schools — White Station High, Shady Grove Elementary and White Station Elementary — were visited by Katie Wilson, a USDA deputy for food, nutrition and consumer services.

Farm-to-school school programs are designed to sprout healthy habits among students. But in Memphis, they also help to address the daily challenges of poverty and hunger that are barriers to learning, says James Ritter, a science teacher who sponsors Kingsbury’s garden club.

At Kingsbury, students can pick fresh garden veggies or fruit to take home, “but often they just eat what they’ve picked right then and there,” Ritter said.

“These kids are hungry. Often, our students are coming from high-poverty situations. Some have never seen things like cantaloupe or cilantro before,” he said.

In Shelby County, about 82,000 children live in poverty, and all students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch under a federal program. Across Tennessee, one in four children face hunger each day, according to the state Department of Human Services.

Michael Gong, a Kingsbury High School teacher, eyes a freshly-picked melon.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Kingsbury teacher Michael Gong eyes a freshly picked melon.

During Monday’s tour, Wilson was impressed that Kingsbury students volunteer to participate.

“Often these programs are a part of a class, but this is a club that takes of the students’ free time,” Wilson said. “My message to these students is to keep understanding where your food comes from, and teach others.”

To learn more, visit the USDA’s 2015 Farm to School Census.

Poverty in America

Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.