- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
The Verde Partnership Garden is located on the campus of Verde Elementary School in North Richmond. It is a true partnership: both a school and community garden project. It's one of the loveliest gardens I've ever seen.
The project's coordinator is Cassie Scott. A gentle and wise woman, she shared some of the garden's history with me.
The Verde Partnership Garden project serves an extremely low income North Richmond neighborhood that despite its poverty, is rich in diversity and a sense of community. Like many urban areas in America today, North Richmond is poor. Per some statistics, ninety-seven percent of North Richmond families are eligible for public assistance, and the average family income is below $21,000 per year.
More than a decade ago, the area where the market garden now resides was a trash-strewn field behind the school. Richmond has a large population of Laotian refugees. A number of those Laotian refugee mothers - many formerly subsistence farmers from the Mien group - appeared one day and began quietly working. They sought no public permit. They saw a need, and they filled it.
Within three days, these women had claimed unloved and unused public space in the center of their community - the school where their children attended - and turned that space into 25 family garden plots. They hand-tilled each one, and in so doing, transformed a school. One of the school's employees, a child therapy intern with a background in organic gardening, was inspired by their work, and in the adjacent area, cultivated a small children's garden. Several organizations also became involved in the effort, including Catholic Charities. So began the Verde Partnership Garden.
This garden grows healthy children along with healthy food. It serves the school as an outdoor laboratory that brings classroom learning to life. It has distinct areas that encourage nature study and human interaction. Using the garden as its center, teachers and community volunteers teach cooking, nutrition, job readiness, literacy and leadership classes. The garden is a wonderland for children, providing areas of exploration, study, and contemplation.
The original field portion cultivated by a generation of immigrants eager to put down literal (and figurative) roots in the community, has now become a production-oriented garden, a student-run business. It provides food for the community, rolling into the larger effort of the 5% Local Coalition's work to produce and consume 5% of Richmond's food locally. It demonstrates the potential of urban agriculture to produce meaningful quanitities of food for local communities.
The garden may be helping Verde Elementary School in other important ways. The school placed last in statewide academic testing in 1999, the year when the garden programs began. Since then, per some statistics, Verde Elementary School’s test scores have increased at the fastest rate of any school in the state. The school also serves as a place to teach peace and cooperation among diverse groups of students. I visited the garden twice, and each time, there were community volunteers there supporting the work, busy students, and just an overwhelming sense of peace, purpose, and deep community.
There are statistics, and then there are the things that defy quantitative analysis. A shady nook to read a book, plants to touch and smell, an area for pollinators...and a place for school and community to come together.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."