The greening of an urban school

Jul 17, 2020

The greening of an urban school

Jul 17, 2020

Collaboration between CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE San Mateo County and local school increases access to green spaces and empower youth through development of Garden Buddy system.


The Issue

Woodrow Wilson Elementary school is located in Daly City, San Mateo County, a densely populated urban area near San Francisco. The school has had no dedicated green space. There are documented health benefits of spending time in green spaces, yet a 2019 landscape and urban planning study found inequities in access to urban vegetation in communities that are more ethnically, racially diverse, and have lower income levels. Over seventy two percent of its 371 students qualify for the Free and Reduced Meal Program.

How UC Delivers

For over 5 years, CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE San Mateo has partnered with the school to offer physical activity, nutrition education, cafeteria promotions, Safe Routes to School and limited garden-enhanced education to the students. An assessment in the fall of 2019 identified the need for technical assistance and training to bring more students and school staff to the garden for year-round learning. A six-person School Garden Committee composed of four teachers, the principal and a CFHL, UCCE San Mateo County Educator worked tirelessly to develop an expanded garden and more robust garden-enhanced learning program.

Challenges of teaching in an outdoor environment include multiple distractions around the school and neighborhood. To address this problem, a garden peer mentor program, modeled on the existing Reading Buddy System, connected older elementary students with younger ones. Garden Buddies offered older students leadership roles to serve as ambassadors to younger students and lead them through garden lessons taught from CFHL's Teams with Inter-Generational Support (TWIGS) and the Junior Master Gardener curricula.

UCCE found through observation and discussions with teachers that students participating in the Garden Buddy system remained focused on program content and assisted in each other's learning, even though there were more students in the garden at that time. As a result, teachers did not need to expend their class time managing behavioral issues and instead more fully explored curriculum content and activities.

The Impact

This collaboration resulted in the garden growing from 5 to 18 - 4'x4' garden boxes for garden-enhanced nutrition education throughout the year. As a result of adopting the Garden Buddy system, the school was able to engage 371 students in the garden and build leadership skills. Furthermore, because Garden Safety rules were established the garden became distinguished as a versatile site on campus hosting English and Art classes. During recess periods the garden was a quiet zone for mindfulness exercises, or an area for socializing. A CFHL, UCCE San Mateo Educator described it as often being “a quiet haven for students who did not want to play sports or run around, but rather chat with classmates or look for bugs.” The garden is now accessible throughout the school day and after school. Students can be found in the garden discussing composting and showing their vegetables growth proudly to family members. Community members have also been able to see and feel how the school has greened their formerly concrete recess yard as they visit a food bank distribution site, which is right next to the garden. In these ways, CFHL, UC collaborations have improved access to positive built environments. Research shows that living, working, and playing near green spaces promotes healthy people and communities in San Mateo County.  

My fifth graders really enjoyed spending time with their kinder buddies in the garden.  Not only was it fun, it also allowed some of my quieter students to take on a leadership role.  For some of my more outgoing students, it was a time to have them try to get their buddy to participate more.  Students were able to practice listening, speaking, sketching, and writing together in the garden. -Mrs. Kious-Noda, 5th Grade Teacher

By William Easlea
Author - Nutrition Educator - UC CalFresh
By Mary Vollinger
By Andra Nicoli