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NEEM hoists challenge flag on ubiquitous DPS school gardens

The Herald-Sun did a nice job with its two-parter on local non-profit NEEM and its founder Jeff Ensminger, the players behind the successful re-imagining of Lakewood's Roll's Florist shop across from the Food Lion as a "seed garden" for raised-bed gardens throughout North-East Central Durham and by demand in other parts of the city.

NEEM's mission of helping residents reconnect with agriculture while providing healthful foods grown economically in their own back yard has resonated with local leaders, grant writers, Duke officials, non-profits and more, and Ensminger's vision is off to a good start. (See BCR's March 2009 story for more on the NEEE effort.)

Now Ensminger is making a push to get community gardens established at all of Durham's 29 elementary schools -- a big effort that could go a long way towards closing some of the gap in food experiences at Durham's various primary schools.

Now, edible gardens at a school are a bit of a misnomer as far as the cafeteria's concerned, since as the Herald-Sun notes, the use of food harvested on school grounds for actual eating by students is strictly forbidden. (Too bad the same doesn't apply to mystery meat!)

But that doesn't mean parents aren't interested in slow-food, locally-sourced menu item actions they can support at their schools. In November, we talked here about the PTA-supported edible garden effort at Watts Montessori Magnet, and at a slow-food chef day at Morehead's own magnet school, again a source of parental action.

The comments section heated up on the post, with some griping over these efforts seeming to take place in those schools where wealthier parents were engaged, versus in more challenged urban schools. As one observer rejoined:

Correct me if I wrong, but I believe that *every* group of parents who are making an effort in the area of gardening, school lunches or nutrition is ONLY doing it at their school -- whether it's a magnet or non-magnet, Title I or non-Title I. No one has yet figured out how to change the entire system at once. We're all piloting ideas. So instead of making negatively nuanced remarks about whether a school is worthy of attention -- based on its poverty level or magnet status -- I'd suggest we support each other's efforts, in an attempt to build a new kind of farm-to-table system, one step at a time.

What's exciting about Jeff's efforts here is that they really do provide that bridge towards providing more understanding of local food and agriculture to students -- something he thinks will help kids on a path towards healthier eating and avoiding chronic diseases.

The H-S notes that GSK has provided a grant to bring the first raised gardens to the Holton Center in East Durham along with two of Durham's neediest elementaries, Eastway and Y.E. Smith.

Ensminger figures the cost of getting these gardens at a little under $50,000 -- about $1,650 per school, for four raised gardens, each with appropriate seasonal plants.

And he's calling on all Durhamites to consider donating just $20 to the effort, hoping to raise enough funds to have a big impact on the community and the life of children within it.

Ensminger is also asking local civic groups, non-profits and others to help out with their time and money, be it in adopting a school for the program, helping out with the installation, or -- very importantly -- spending time "mentoring" the garden at a local school, helping make sure the school and its students make the most of the resource.

Visit to donate money, or email Jeff Ensminger's Urban Gardens program ( if you or your group have time, materials or money to give.



I hesitate to write this because 1) I love the idea of a well-rounded education 2) I absolutely feel that we (US citizens) desperately need to reconnect with our food and 3) NEEM is a well-intention and vitally important part of the Durham community. However, I came across this article from The Atlantic in which the author presents an argument against school gardens:

I'm not trying to be contrarian here (in fact I'm not sure I agree with the author), but I thought it was an interesting article and worthy of some consideration.


Interesting article, PN. But isn't it like everything else: the teacher is what really matters. It's not the fact of the garden that makes it such a valuable tool (although some might argue against me here); it's the teacher working hard to incorporate it into the science, social studies, and physical education curricula. Any teacher that is skilled enough to do that is sure to provide a strong educational experience.

Jeff Ensminger

First thanks for the press.
To the two notes above they are both worth looking at and considering. However, what one school has in the public system so should all the others. They should also have support mechanisms in place for the teachers other than a physical garden, we are working on a baseline curriculum with support so they do. Curriculum designed for a teacher to expand on so that it fits her class, the children and school is as critical as these first steps to addressing nutritional behavior. Note the comment "First Steps" because that is what school gardens are a step towards addressing not only the educational component but in the process development of programs that will morph from the garden beyond the classroom to the cafeteria and homes of the students. That they are environemtally sound is just another compliment.


Are donations to NEEM tax-deductible?


Exciting stuff! Thanks for sharing.


Hmm, both interesting articles.

I think the problem lies with engaging kids. Yes fundamentals are necessary, but the important part of learning is diversification and creating interest. We have so many higher level resources available in our community for further academic growth, but it takes a drive and understanding of what all exists to motivate students or adults to continue on to higher learning. So I would stand behind gardens in the schools as a great tool for teaching kids different aspects in learning.


When Caitlin Flanagan's article "Cultivating Failure" was published there were a number of eloquent responses published online including these:

Frank Hyman

I read that article in the Atlantic, and I thought the writer was "out to lunch". And not an organic one either.

One of her themes was that some of the children in CA schools were from migrant farmworker families and that these school gardens were just a way for middle class families to keep these hispanic kids working in agriculture.

She made other really spurious points and apparently has a history of writing contrarian claptrap. I suspect the editors didn't agree with her at all (as her points don't hold water for anyone with basic knowledge of schooling), but they were excited to have a writer that would stir up a vigorous response. Which she did.

Frank Hyman


Earth Partnership for Schools is a research-based program to help schools build and sustain native plant gardens on school grounds. At the week-long summer teacher institute at the NC Botanical Garden, teams of teachers get over 100 lessons correlated to the NC Standard Course of Study, plus lots of hands on field experiences. Applications due SOON for summer 2010.


At Frank

School gardens as a way to keep migrant farm worker’s children down is not the point of the article. She was trying to engage readers and point out the absurdity (in her opinion, not mine) of the circumstances; I did not read anything that pointed to conspiracy theory.

To me, the most important issue is whether or not research has been done on the efficacy of the programs. They cost money for schools (with little of it and less time in the day), so they should be well vetted before installed. She writes that there is no evidence that school gardens positively impact test scores. That answer skirts the question of whether the gardens are successful in other, equally important ways. I'm sure you are right and good research has been done, I am just not quite as familiar with it.

Finally, I don't know the authors of The Atlantic so I won't speculate on their editorial decisions, but for what it is worth, I have seen articles from Caitlin Flannigan in the majority of last years issues.

A D Morgan

Question: Since none of the food grown in school gardens can be consumed at school, what happens to the food? Is it simply thrown away? That would send a perverse message.


I don't think contributions to NEEM are tax deductible as of Feb 2011. They are still not listed as a non profit with the IRS, though they have been advertising themselves as a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation for at least a year.

Joseph F

It seems they’re full of lots of empty talk.
The only “re-imagining” of the property has been to allow it to go even more downhill.
It’s really becoming a junky eyesore for the community.

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