Montgomery school system reconsiders vegetable gardens
Officials discuss plots in county parks, school-owned properties
Most children in Montgomery County Public Schools have never pulled a carrot from the ground, says Kristen Dill, the mother of a Takoma Park Elementary School first-grader and co-chairwoman of the school's garden committee.
"Everyone should get a chance at picking up a chicken, collecting eggs, pulling out a carrot and picking a blueberry," said Dill, who grew up on a farm in Nebraska. "I really want that for my kids."
When Dill, who helps with the school's indoor garden, which does not include produce, and other parents requested a vegetable garden on school grounds, the request was denied due to a Feb. 26 memo by schools superintendent Jerry D. Weast.
The memo discourages schools from planting edible gardens on school property, citing pests, student allergies and maintenance concerns.
"We see the value of having a garden. We get it," said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the school system. "But to have a vegetable garden creates certain challenges that have to be dealt with."
Sean Gallagher, MCPS' Assistant Director of Facilities Management and other school officials met with garden advocates as well as Montgomery County Department of Parks officials Monday to discuss establishing up to six community gardens on school system property that does not house students, a move some say will not result in a successful program.
"I think [schools officials] were very supportive of the idea and responsive, but I see they're working with a lot of limitations," said Gordon Clark, project director for Montgomery Victory Gardens, a nonprofit that is working to establish a food system connecting gardens and the community.
Gordon, who attended the meeting, said that gardens need to be on school grounds where students, teachers and parents are responsible for their care.
The meeting was the a result of a letter and petition Clark, along with Sheryl Freishtat, president of the Montgomery County Master Gardner Association, sent to Weast on June 3. More than 20 groups signed the petition, he said.
The school system is looking at alternatives such as gardens on park property, which would reduce some of Weast's liability concerns and split maintenance responsibility, Tofig said.
"We feel these are real models of success in terms of community gardens and could move us the quickest towards starting to have these available to students," Gallagher said.
Parks is in talks with the school system to extend its community garden program to school system property, said David Vismara, chief of the department's Horticulture Services Division.
He said there are advantages to establishing gardens outside school property; where community members can participate during the summer, when students would be unavailable to tend to them.
"It's not going to as easy as going and plowing up ground where you want a garden, that much is clear," he said. "... [MCPS] does has a responsibility for the safety and security of these kids."
Parks has community gardens in Montgomery County; in Bethesda, Germantown, Silver Spring, and Takoma Park, which has two. Vismara said the program maintains grounds that are rented to community members as personal garden parcels.
Staff Writer Alex Ruoff contributed to this report.