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Rats! MoCo schools discouraging food gardens

First lady Michelle Obama hopes many schools will plant food gardens like the one on the White House lawn. Montgomery County discourages the idea. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Michelle Obama believes school gardens are a weapon in the fight against childhood obesity in America. Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast believes they are a magnet for pests.

In a Feb. 26 memo, Weast all but banned schools from planting fruits and vegetables: "Because vegetable gardens are a food source for pests, create liabilities for children with food allergies and have other associated concerns, the Department of Facilities Management staff has not approved gardens designed to produce food," he wrote.

Food gardens posed other problems as well, Weast said. Vegetable gardens are extremely labor-intensive and require extensive watering and weeding. That the prime harvest takes place in the summer when students and teachers are on vacation was also a concern.

Rodents are a problem in Montgomery County schools. As my colleague Valerie Strauss reported, Burning Tree Elementary had discovered one rats' nest and two or three dead rats. But Weast's memo was in response to requests for clarification of the county policy from teachers interested in planting new gardens. Last October, Donna Marchick, a program administrator at the Department of Facilities Management, informed teachers at Maryvale Elementary School that food was not permitted to be grown on school grounds.

"As you know," she wrote, "food-bearing plants attract pests. Maryland law restricts the use of pesticides on school grounds. Therefore, planting of food bearing plants is prohibited by MCPS."

Several teachers were outraged. "I am willing to bet that no school district in the country, perhaps the world, has such wrong-headed, plant-phobic landscaping guidelines as Montgomery County's MCPS!" Kathleen Michels wrote in a message posted on a local listserv. "The role of pesticide restriction and landscaping is puzzling since organic gardening is what most are proposing on school grounds."

Montgomery Victory Gardens, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes the development of local food systems, took up the cause. The topic was brought up at a Dec. 7 county council hearing. But, says project director Gordon Clark, it was still unclear whether there was an official policy on the books.

"I started to talk to teachers and people in schools, and I found out there was, on some people's part, intimidation, even though it wasn't clear there was a policy forbidding this type of stuff," said Clark in a phone interview. "What we have here is a superintendent that wants to prevent what Michelle Obama wants to happen all over the country. It's completely ridiculous."

Dana Tofig, a spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools, said that there is no policy prohibiting gardens. The county sees the educational value of gardens and encourages certain types of gardens, such as butterfly gardens and rain gardens, which prevent run-off by helping to absorb rainwater.

"We believe food gardens can provide a good learning experience for students on many levels. To that end, we are working with the County Parks and Recreation Department to see if schools adjacent to or very near parks – of which there are many in Montgomery County – can plant food gardens in the park," he said. "We are still working on an agreement with the county and hope to be able to work something out soon."

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  March 11, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, school gardens  
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I'm good with this decision.
Gardens are wonderful and if you're in horticulture class maybe they have a place.

But I'm not ready to allocate resources to tend them. MoCo can't ever do anything cheaply and jumping into the garden thing will become a cost-center that draws a following. Let's stick to the basics.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 12, 2010 7:14 AM | Report abuse

Are you aware that "moco" means snot or buggers in Spanish? I really wouldn't use this abbreviation unless you want to disrespect Montgomery County!! While using caps helps but this would have to be done consistently in order to not elicit the wonder such as when I first saw the word used in the original posting's title!! Funny but potentially not nice. Just a suggestion and lesson to monolinguals!!

Posted by: msilva2 | March 12, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

So the choice is between hands on learning and rats? Maybe we should stop allowing the kids to eat lunch at shool, that oughta help with the rat problem.

Yes, hands on learning is a little bit of extra work, but people all over the country have gardens and they don't typically worry about rats infesting their homes. This is ridiculous. Sounds like Montogomery Co superintendent has moco in the space his brain should occupy.

Posted by: tiggertime1 | March 12, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

He's worried about organically grown vegetables and fruits causing allergies? Has he checked out what kids are eating in the cafeteria currently? As a school teacher in another district, I know school lunches, even those touted as "healthy", are most certainly NOT healthy. Though they may not cause immediate drastic allergic reactions, it would be worth it for this superintendent to research exactly what constitutes an allergy. Many kids who have runny noses, sore throats, headaches, etc, are allergic to certain (mostly unhealthy) ingredients contained in the foods already being served.

I think encouraging kids to tend a garden and eat what they grow is a great idea. Hopefully it will stick with them as they grow up, and someday our country can recover from this obesity epidemic.

Posted by: dickinsl | March 12, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Great -- Americans are afraid of learning how pigs and chickens are really raised, even though they want to eat meat twice a day; now they're afraid of even having gardens.

The only pests in my garden are rabbits.

Do fruits and vegetables on the vine really attract rats?? A ton of stored grain will, fine, but food still on the vine in the garden?? Really? I don't know, myself, but could we do some journalism and check on that?

Posted by: fallschurch1 | March 12, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Some of these early commenters need to step back & think. Do you know how much redtape and the number of liability issues a school (district) has to deal with. All it takes is one unfortunate allergic reaction (yes it does happen even with organics) to bring about a multimillion dollar lawsuit! That's the world we live in. The officials are just CTAs. Yeah, maybe the official is wrong headed, misspoke, etc. While gardening/farming can be a great learning experience it does take time & money. This at a time when virtually every state is facing extreme budget pressures/shortfalls. If the teacher(s) wants a garden, then have all of the issues taken care of and then they can do it as a pilot program and look for parent volunteers to help to keep costs down and not have work rule issues creep in. If I were a facilities employee I certainly wouldn't want to have an added responsibility to my already heavy workload especially when the work would fall under the teacher/educational area.

Posted by: notamullethead | March 12, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Their best argument is that the gardens require the most work when the kids are gone, meaning the learning opportunities are lost and the already overworked and underpaid staff has to fill in. Everything else can be worked around, but if that's the reason, I'd fully respect that, even if it's too bad because kids really could use the gardening, the sunshine, etc.

Posted by: sarahabc | March 12, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

but schools filled with soda and candy machines, and plastic-wrapped foods filled with preservatives and high fructose corn syrup, made in factories far away, are ok. Just keep away those pesky local organic home-grown gardens.

Wow. I can't believe it. The world is truly upside down.

*Jay S. Marks*

*Marks, Calderon, Derwin & Racine P.L.C.*

*3300 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 201*

*Arlington, Virginia 22201*

*Phone(703) 248-9000 *

*Fax (703) 248-0039*

Posted by: jaysmarks | March 12, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

A lot of adults are required to tend these school gardens. I live close to one and I see lots of grownups doing the work. I don't know if they are volunteers, or teachers, or paid gardeners, but the kids are not doing all the gardening required. It's a lot of work!

Posted by: Luciana1 | March 12, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I've had a garden near my house for 17 years, no rats, lots of deer, squirrels,rabbits,the odd ground hog, but no rats. I agree that to have a garden at school is silly ,since the harvest is during the summer. Why not give the kids seeds to start at school and take home and grow? Even a townhouse can do container gardening.

Posted by: rstull1949 | March 12, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

I guess he is not informed enough to know about organic or seasonal gardens. When I hear/read such nonsense from people in charge of students it makes me sad.

Posted by: rlj1 | March 12, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

"While gardening/farming can be a great learning experience it does take time & money.

Posted by: notamullethead | March 12, 2010 9:40 AM"

I agree with a lot of what you wrote, like the CTA bit; but most school learning experiences take time, so that's not an argument against gardening; and as for money -- seeds are cheap, and other than shovels and rakes I don't think you need much. I get plenty of tomatoes and beans with nothing else. And strawberries, except what the %$#!@# rabbits steal.

I'm a guy, and I occasionally hear "men's studies" types point out that boys learn better when they have some activities to do, rather than just stay at their desks all day -- well, here you go, gardening, a hands-on activity.

Posted by: fallschurch1 | March 12, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

A lot of adults are required to tend these school gardens. I live close to one and I see lots of grownups doing the work. I don't know if they are volunteers, or teachers, or paid gardeners, but the kids are not doing all the gardening required. It's a lot of work!

Posted by: Luciana1 | March 12, 2010 11:09 AM

Then DON'T DO IT FOR THE KIDS and tell them, look, if you don't do it, no produce. If it fails, that is itself a learning experience, and you're out, what, $20 in seeds.

As for the summer vacation -- it's not like these kids are out for three solid months; you can pick a lot through June 20 and then starting up again last week of August or first week of September. And you're telling me no kids set foot on the school grounds during the summer at all?

Fine, forget it. Sit down at your desks, kids, and let's do another worksheet . . .

Posted by: fallschurch1 | March 12, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

No-one is asking the school facility staff to maintain the gardens, in fact there is an application process in place for school gardens that specifically requires a maintenance plan from the applicant. Even the best of the veggie garden proposals have been turned down.
Also what is not reported is that, *unless the landscaping guidelines have been recently modified*, as reported by Craig Shuman at the Brookside Gardens school landscaping meeting last year and reinforced by Joe Lavornga at an MCCPTA safety committee meeting: ANYTHING with Berries or flowers is ALSO banned (under the assumption that birds will eat the berries and poop on someone's car or rodents will come for the berries, or bees will come to the flowers- under the mistaken thinking that yellow jackets which are attracted to dumpsters and kids lunches and do sting, are the same as bees attracted to flowers and which rarely sting.)
This makes establishing butterfly and habitat gardens very difficult.

Posted by: kathybear | March 12, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

This is a very important discussion, because gardening (farming) is so basic to life. Our children must see how food grows to understand the connection. All the counter-garden arguments are distractions from the basic LEARNING experience of seeds+earth+water+work+time = food. If it can't be part of the regular curriculum. at least let volunteer parents and teachers do the leading.
Here are responses to the objections:
SEASONAL? plant seedlings indoors in March, get food by May, or plant long-maturing crops like parsley/parsnips in May and harvest in September.
RATS? Use a few rat-traps, and stop worrying -- they don't like lettuce and broccoli. Protect plots with small-hole fences (sure a few can dig under, but only the most desperate). And clean up the cafeteria, and pass all lunchboxes through an irradiation tunnel to kill all pathogens.
MONEY? Volunteers. Seeds and seedlings to be donated (volunteer with fundrasing experience needed).
TIME? It's a wonderful way to occupy time, especially in summer, to replace less productive and more damaging uses.
ORGANIC? ALLERGENIC? Forget it. The school environment can't be reduced to the most sensitive denominator. People are allergic to bee stings, so would the antigardenists like to get rid of bees (and the consequent demise of so many flowers that make this area a delight to live in)? Use fertilizers, even pesticides (OK, non-toxic ones) and stop shivering at the unstatistical fears of the chemophobes and junk-scientists.
MICHELLE LIKES IT? This may draw ultra-conservative ire, but that's pretty dumb.
LEGAL PROBLEMS? Would anyone really sue a school for supporting a garden? That's the only argument I really have no anser to, except for my firm conviction that gardening is so educational, so sacred, and so wonder-full, that its benefits far outweigh any disadvantages.

Posted by: algriff | March 12, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

We support Michelle Obama's excellent example of providing a solution to a growing problem within the food industry. What is missing in this article, that is very relevent, is that people can incorporate companion planting within their garden to deter unwanted pests, you eliminate the neccessity for dangerous pesticides. Of course there are some industries that would not like this in the public mainstream due to their economic co dependence witin the market place e.g. why sometimes the truth is withheld to protect special interests. We would like more people to embrace organic gardening since this is the healthiest method of eating. We saw this coming long time ago and wrote an ebook that covers all aspects of providing such a benefit, if interested see , as for now keep the good work coming Michelle Obama, you rock!.

Posted by: graymatter11 | March 12, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

The Takoma Voice broke this story last November, has followed it almost every month since then, and the County Council committee hearing was called in response to our reporting. Read the "School Scene" column at

Sue Katz Miller
Takoma Voice

Posted by: SusanKatzMiller | March 14, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Good for this Superintendent! With all of the school cutbacks, the last thing that we need is bring on additional costs for maintenance when we could actually have teachers. We've lost so many teachers due to budget cuts, that the sheer though of this is ridiculous.

Posted by: SleepingGnome | March 18, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I had not thought of the work that would need to be done over summer break, but I do really wish there was a way to incorporate gardening into curriculum. My concern is more about food allergies, as I am the mom of a food allergic child. It is not anything to be messed with and this would/could pose a real danger. Our son is so much better from food intolerance/Eczema because of his Belly Boost probiotics, but he does still have some of the major ones like nuts, sunflower, melon, egg and it would make me nervous if he garden without my close supervision. I don't know - this is tough.

Posted by: smilinggreenmom | March 18, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

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