Murrieta Elementary School serves one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Southern California district. But despite that, the school has a thriving garden that grows everything from strawberries and broccoli, snap peas, tomatoes and bell peppers. There is a greenhouse to help the seedlings mature, and even an apricot tree that is starting to get some buds. Students in grades 2-5 tend the garden after school through the Rev. Joe Zarro's Healthy Vines program, where they learn and have fun by getting their hands dirty in the great outdoors.
"There is a lot of laughing," said Zarro, pastor of United Church of the Valley UCC in Murrieta, Calif. "The kids really like checking the compost each week and then being grossed out by it. But when we ask who wants to dig in it, all of them raise their hands."
Healthy Vines is a nonprofit afterschool program started by Zarro and his cofounder, Lisa Wright, a Methodist pastor, in Nov. 2011. Zarro's initial inspiration came from the lack of fresh produce available at the local food pantry and he wanted to think of a way to remedy that. But Zarro also realized that the program could address other issues, such as caring for the environment, nutrition, childhood obesity, and even science and math skills. After speaking with local schools, seeking out grant funding and establishing a curriculum, Healthy Vines had a pilot garden at a school last fall, and is currently focusing on the Murrieta garden. Zarro anticipates adding two more gardens in late April and hopes to be district-wide by the end of the year. Much of the produce will be donated to the local food pantry, but some of the produce and seeedlings will also be sent home with the participants to promote healthy eating and an appreciation for the environment at home.
"It came from researching community needs and grant opportunities, and identifying a way to serve these needs that aligned with our mission and values," said Zarro, adding that he and Wright both have personal interests in environmental issues. "It's really a holistic project."
While Zarro had hoped to have more gardens up and running by now, he learned there were a few important factors to address for the program to have long-term success. He is currently working to build an institutional structure that binds the participating schools together as a network – because the thing about a garden is they only thrive as long as there are people to maintain them. He is trying to avoid planting too many gardens before Healthy Vines has enough staff or volunteers to keep up with them. He says many of the schools they plan to work with have existing gardens that were built with one-time grants and have sense decayed and become overrun due to lack of attention. Often there is no training or extra pay for teachers and there is very little institutional support after that first year, he adds.
"We are making sure we don't start gardens we can't sustain," he said. "Schools have districts, sports teams have leagues, but school gardens are often run by a lonely volunteer. We're trying to be the league for school gardens."
Another detail Zarro wants to get right is that the program remains free and serves the schools and children who need it most. He is very cognizant of the social justice aspects of Healthy Vines, and is excited for the program's potential to support kinetic and experiential learning. With more and more schools in his area seeing budget cuts, Zarro says it's important to offer extracurricular programs that operate with outside funding, and believes members of the faith community are just the people to make this happen.
"We find this work empowering and we want to empower the kids who need it most," said Zarro. "People tend to be very generous and excited about this project and it's a way of doing the work of Christ in the world."
The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and recognizes the opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.
With the help of UCC congregations everywhere, Mission 4/1 Earth, which begins Easter Monday 2013, hopes to accomplish more than 1 million hours of engaged earth care, 100,000 tree plantings across the globe, and 100,000 advocacy letters written and sent on environmental concerns.
Here's a preview of Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 Great Days.
Visit ucc.org/earth for more information or join the movement on Facebook.