Digging Into Community: Lessons from the Ochoa Garden

July 31, 2014

“We’re quite interested in our students not just knowing about the world, but actually going out into the world and changing it,” says Professor Sallie Marston. “Our school garden project is a partnership with the Community Food Bank and the local schools. We’re all working together to change people’s relationships to food and their access to healthy food.” The schools are located in low-income neighborhoods where organic produce is either not available or prohibitively expensive.

Before Marston’s two-dozen interns are sent into the schools, they learn about the physical aspects of sustainable gardening from Community Food Bank experts, including garden design, irrigation and soil enhancement. Marston instructs them on population and resource dynamics and community building processes. And professors from the Department of Education are brought in to lecture on how to engage with young people in the classroom.

Every morning, sophomore Amy Mellor rides her bike three miles south of the University of Arizona campus to the Ochoa Elementary School. She spends four hours helping out in the pre-K classroom and in the class garden. The school uses a parent-involvement model, so parents help plan, plant and tend the garden, and they also take a share of the harvest.

“It ties into my Latin American studies because I’m learning about different aspects of communities and how people can form a community through a garden,” says Mellor, who has worked in community gardens in her native New York and in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. “I’m also working on a crop production major, and for the practical aspect of that I work with the science of bugs and the soil and watering schedules, and all the different fine-tuned aspects of gardening.”

This is Mellor’s second semester interning at Ochoa, and she plans on coming back in some capacity—intern or volunteer—every semester until she graduates because she loves it so much. “I’m learning as much from this community as I’m teaching,” she says.

The school garden program is a win-win situation for the students, the schools and the community, says Marston. “We can only teach our students so much in the classroom. Knowledge is alive! It’s not something that’s just in books. That’s why a garden is a great object for geography students to study, to understand the world.”

Visit the UA School of Geography and Development online.

View YouTube- "Cultivating Seeds of Change: Geography Studies in the Ochia School Garden"