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Outdoor Gardens Growing Green Communities

Elliot Grimm, CEA

Earth Month is here and people all over the world are joining together to celebrate the efforts being done to raise awareness for environmental conservation and sustainability.  In recognition, CEA reached out to Green Our Planet  to get the latest on their successful Outdoor Garden Classroom Program.  Green Our Planet is a non-profit conservation organization unique in how it operates through a free crowdfunding platform.  

At the 2015 International CES, CEA donated $65,000 to help fund their Outdoor Garden Classroom Program, launched in Las Vegas, Nevada in early 2013.  The program is designed to help public and private schools raise funds for and build outdoor vegetable gardens that teach students lessons in health, STEM and nutritional education. Through the project, Green Our Planet hopes to create “green communities” that spread across the country in order to continue their mission of educating the public about green issues and creating ideas that can help protect, conserve, and improve the natural environment around the world.
Describe the idea behind creating green communities through the outdoor garden classroom program.
A friend who owned a garden company told us that he was often approached by school principals who wanted to build a garden, but the schools did not have the funds to do so. So we thought: why not crowdfunding? We helped one school crowdfund a garden in late 2012 on our crowdfunding platform and since then have helped some 64 schools fund their gardens across the city. As the schools built their gardens, however, we realized that they now needed some kind of garden program to go with their gardens! So we applied for a grant and created the first K-5 STEM curriculum for use in gardens in the state of Nevada. 
Gradually, we realized gardens at schools are not only a great educational tool for students but are also a great way to get the local community involved. When the students hold their farmers’ markets, parents and local community members become the natural “customers,” both buying vegetables and also helping to sustain the school garden program. Thus, in a relatively short period of time, a local green community has been created. These “green communities” naturally form around every school that has a garden.
What are the biggest environmental challenges our society faces today? How does the program help combat them?
One of the biggest environmental challenges facing us is simply educating the public about the environment. It is difficult to make an informed decision about global warming if you have no training in science or natural systems. It is also difficult to make informed choices about various environmental policies and your environmental impact if you know little or nothing about how food is grown, the differences between organic and non-organic foods, the functionality of life systems, and the importance of soil, recycling, species diversity and conservation. 
The best place to begin learning about all of these things is in a hands-on environment where you can actually see how many of these systems work. And one should start as early as possible, in kindergarten and then through elementary, middle and high school. That is what our Outdoor Garden Classroom Program and the accompanying curriculum we have developed is all about—educating students about science, food and the environment in an actual natural laboratory—the Outdoor Garden Classroom.
The program has developed STEM lesson plans. What concepts are students learning? Why is this important?
The teachers developed jobs for each grade level that work in tandem with the lessons that each grade level is focused on. So kindergartners are the caretakers of the garden and have to keep the garden clean, free of trash and leaves. The first graders study the lifecycle of plants and so their job is planting the seeds. The second graders learn the lifecycles of insects and they are the bug detectives in the garden. The third graders study the science of soil and so their job is composting. Meanwhile, the fourth graders focus on the sustainability of growing food in a desert. Students learn about the water issues we face, solar power and the importance of growing food sustainably. Fifth graders learn about food deserts, GMOs, pesticides and agribusiness versus growing local organic food. They are then in charge of writing a business plan for their garden, assessing their expenses and profits or losses. This ultimately culminates in their creation of a farmers’ market where the whole community comes to the school to buy the food.  
Tell us some of the successes you’ve had with this program.  
More than 25 elementary schools have created their own farmers’ markets and the number is always increasing. Gradually, we embedded the whole concept of student-run farmers’ markets into the fifth grade curriculum, which now teaches students how to create their own farmers’ market businesses. We call it the “Farm-preneur Program.” We also developed a sub-program called the “Chef to School Program.” More than 40 professional chefs across Las Vegas now routinely volunteer their time to give demonstrations at K-12 schools. Some are executive chefs at top restaurants on the Strip. At another school, a special-needs high school teacher told us she wanted to build a garden for her special-needs students. Today, that school has now put in more than 17 raised beds, has an orchard, and the teacher has recently created a curriculum for special-needs students that will soon be available to any school in Nevada that has a garden. 
What are some tips companies can use to create a more green-friendly and health conscious culture?
There are many things companies can do to encourage a green-friendly workplace and to reduce their impact upon the environment:
1) Set up a recycling program, if one does not already exist.
2) Try to reduce the amount of energy, water and paper that employees use by using everything from high-content recycled paper to leaving signs in place to remind people to turn off electrical equipment when not in use.
3) Support local green initiatives, either financially and/or by volunteering time.
4) Become part of the environmental movement! Participation can begin with something as simple as flipping off a single light switch at the office before leaving, or replacing a bulb with a more energy-efficient one—or even with buying produce from a farmers’ market at a local school!