Rats! MoCo schools discouraging food gardens
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
March 11, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories: Food Politics | Tags: Jane Black, school gardens
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