- Associated Press - Monday, October 9, 2017

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - It’d been just over 30 minutes since Becca Griffith had begun twist-tilling her newly claimed garden plot, and she was breathless.

“I can count this toward my active points at work,” she half-joked.

That Tuesday evening, Griffith was clearing weed roots from her raised plot so she and her 5-year-old, Desmond Baldwin, could plant seeds and grow vegetables to take home and eat. Desmond wants to be a gardener, he told her, but because they live in an apartment where plants tend to die, she thought they’d sign up for Global Gardens’ Family Food Farms program and try to keep something alive.

They were at McAuliffe Elementary’s community garden, where about a dozen others had gathered to harvest vegetables and later cook a meal together in the newly dedicated kitchen. Similar get-togethers were happening at other area Family Food Farm sites around Tulsa.

The nights are among the nonprofit’s newest traditions to bring together community members, and Griffith and Baldwin - who came for the first time Tuesday night - were among the program’s newest recruits, joining thousands of others.

The Tulsa World reports that Global Gardens began in 2007 as a school program for children at Eugene Field Elementary School in west Tulsa. The plan was to teach the students, many of whom came from low-income families, life skills through hands-on education about science and nutrition. In the 10 years since, the program has expanded to four sites. Family Food Farms started in 2012 to get families involved with their children’s gardening education, the nonprofit’s executive director Maryann Donahue said.

Looking toward the next 10 years, Donahue sees the program growing to schools in all of Tulsa’s high-poverty areas.

Tulsa-native Heather Oakley developed Global Gardens while she was in New York City, working toward master’s degrees in Urban Science Education and International Development/Peace Education at Columbia University and teaching at a school in Harlem, Donahue said.

The program was meant to address the discrepancies she noticed between the teaching best practices she was learning in school and what she saw happening in the school where she taught.

Students were missing the hands-on education that engages and empowers them, Donahue said, so Oakley created Global Gardens to bring those aspects back into schools, specifically those in high-poverty areas.

She later came back to Tulsa and launched the program at Eugene Field. From there, it moved to Rosa Parks Elementary in 2008. In 2010, officials began the middle school program for Union Public Schools across from Asbury United Methodist Church. The McAuliffe Elementary program started in 2015.

Along the way, Global Gardens has grown slowly and intentionally, adding the Family Food Farms concept in 2012 and a weeklong summer camp this past summer.

“We’re student-led and family-led as much as we possibly can be, because that’s where we feel like the empowerment comes from,” Donahue said.

In the past year, Arizona Anderson-Jones and the five children who live with her have spent a lot of time in the garden at McAuliffe Elementary.

“When my sister moved in with us, and my cousin, I was like, ‘Look, this is what we do every Tuesday. Rain or shine,’ and she didn’t believe me,” Anderson-Jones said. “Rain or shine, we’re here every Tuesday.”

The weekly visits to harvest from the community garden with other families makes her feel grounded to a community, which she says is the biggest benefit she and her family get out of the program. She met her friend Denissa “Dee-Dee” Diggs at the garden, and they have play dates with their children often.

“A lot of families are not together to do stuff, and this is something, in my opinion, that’s pretty good,” Diggs said.

Diggs, who has health issues, said being a part of Global Gardens has nearly turned her into a vegetarian. Her 10-year-old daughter, Jalin, learned to build a raised plot, as well as how and when to plant seeds. Her favorite plants to grow are strawberries, tomatoes and lavender.

Lucia Plascencia and her family have been coming to the Rosa Parks Elementary School garden for three years. The garden, in addition to reducing their grocery bill, has become their go-to hangout spot.

“I love the place. It’s out of the city, and sometimes we can hear the coyotes,” Plascencia said.

She said her 6-year-old, Carlos Renteria, has begun eating more vegetables and spending more time outside playing with other children and away from TV and video games. Her 20-year-old, Ismael, who’s autistic, has also found an accepting community.

She’s also made friends like Divya Karri, another mother whose family uses the garden. This year, she used her plots to grow Indian vegetables and herbs, like ridge gourd and a popular but hard-to-find sorrel plant known as gongura.

And that means on Tuesdays, those who attend the weekly get-together get to eat authentic Indian food.

Donahue said she’s trying to increase the program’s reach to make an impact on more children.

She said she gets a phone call or email at least once a week asking how to bring Global Gardens to more schools.

Bringing the program to every school wouldn’t be practical, but officials do want to be involved in some way, Donahue said.

Global Gardens is a large program that works with every teacher in every school they enter. They have staffers at those schools, and they also have to physically build the gardens there.

She’s hoping to implement a model called the Global Gardens Alliance that distills aspects of the program as a guide for schools interested in garden-based learning.

Donahue said it’d likely be about three years before that plan becomes a reality.

Next year, Global Garden officials will begin work on the newest site at Jackson Elementary.

“Ultimately, I would love to have a hub that is a full model in each part of the city that has high-poverty communities, and then be able to have spokes out from that hub where we’re serving kids from neighboring schools, at least in some way.”

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Information from: Tulsa World, https://www.tulsaworld.com

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