Making Home Gardening a Little Easier During the Pandemic

West County DIGS is helping families offer their kids off-screen learning and enrichment by providing plant starts and gardening tips.

Our first thoughts about the pandemic-related school shutdowns were ones of panic. Our program, which supports school gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area’s West Contra Costa County, is campus-based. How were we going to continue with our work? We wondered. Would we have the funds to pay staff? Will our donors move to other issues? Should we close the program?

Photo courtesy of West County Digs.
Since the pandemic began, West County DIGS has given away more than 600 plant starts to teachers and families in West Contra Costa County. Photo courtesy of West County DIGS.

But just as teachers are adjusting to the challenges of distance learning, we have found ways to further our goal of making schools beautiful places to connect with nature in a school district where students face economic, equity, and health challenges. To do this, we have pivoted to online teaching programs and have been providing kids and their families with plant starts as a way for them to stay in touch and to promote home gardening during this challenging time.

Since its inception in 2007, West County DIGS has supported gardens in over 35 public schools, offered training and coaching to over 300 teachers a year, grown thousands of plant starts to give out to schools, and shared innovative curriculum that incorporates math, science, language arts, and art with our outdoor-oriented activities.

In the past, online work often took a back seat to working face-to-face with students, families and teachers in the dirt. Truthfully, we would rather be outdoors, gardening! But sheltering-in-place has forced us to focus more on online learning and outreach, especially via social media, because it is the way to reach most of our clientele.

But we also realized right away that many of the low-income families that we wanted to reach out to do not use social media or even email very frequently. So, we had to figure out other ways to contact them.

At Mira Vista Elementary in the City of Richmond, Principal Gabriel Chilcott helped us reach every single family by sending emails and text messages to their phones. The result was that over 50 families responded when invited to come pick up free plant starts for their home gardens.

So far, we have given away over 600 plant starts — seeded by schoolchildren in our greenhouse back in February and by our partner, Master Gardeners of UC Berkeley — to teachers and families. These plant starts gave many families the impetus to begin the home garden they had always dreamed of. (Check out this neat video about the plant give away!)

A positive aspect of this pandemic nightmare is that it presents the opportunity for a rebirth of urban agriculture. This is evident from the unprecedented surge in demand for seeds and plants across the nation. We were thrilled to make home gardening a little easier for the communities we serve, and to help families avoid the long lines and increased exposure at nurseries.

Meanwhile, with the support of an intern, we updated our look and developed all our online platforms, including our website and social media pages, and we are regularly posting instructional videos on gardening techniques, recipes, and arts and crafts projects.

Our recipe-sharing initiative — which led to a broad effort to involve our community in sharing family favorites, as well as recipes inspired by our cultural heritage and the school gardens — has been especially successful. With the help of funding from Whole Kids Foundation, we are now working to compile these recipes, which reflect diversity of our community, in a print book that will include information about gardening and nutrition curriculum classics like “Eat a Rainbow” and “Power Plate.” We hope to start distributing the book by this fall.

West County DIGS has also been working with its partners Common Vision, Growing Together, and the Numi Foundation on professional development and community engagement. Together, we conducted a survey for current garden educators in the school district to assess their present situations and needs. Information collected so far indicates several priorities in the district including: garden maintenance support, basic supplies including irrigation equipment and guidance for installation, and more involvement from their teachers and school communities, especially since staff turnover of garden educators makes program continuity difficult year to year.

Perhaps the biggest lesson our project has learned in these past months is that West County DIGS has something of great value to offer families as we shelter-in place, and as parents struggle to teach at home, keep their jobs, put healthy meals on the table, and remain sane during incredible upheaval. We are helping by providing some non-screen time learning and enrichment through home gardening and supporting families to make healthy eating and lifestyle choices through online learning.

We have learned that we are a strong and resilient community and that even from a distance, we can help each other through this challenging time.

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