UA students and faculty members from three colleges are now involved in the program: College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, for its expertise in the social science of food issues; the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for its expertise in the science of food production; and the College of Education, for its expertise in teacher education.
Warmth and kindness permeate the preschool classroom – the "Hopes and Dreams" Room – at Ochoa Elementary School, from the cozy reading corner to the faux fireplace to the pictures of the children's families prominently displayed.
At the heart of it all is the garden.
Paula McPheeters, teacher of the Parent and Child Education preschool at Ochoa in South Tucson, speaks passionately about the garden and what it teaches the children and families.
The garden, planted through the University of Arizona's School Garden Program, fits in perfectly with her commitment to providing authentic, purposeful learning.
"It's so much more than a garden project. It's planting seeds, but it's also planting ideas. It's caring for plants, but it's also caring for families," McPheeters said.
"You're building relationships out in the garden, and I really have found that it is something transformational for children, families, teachers and interns."
The aim of the UA School of Geography and Development's program is to enable Tucson teachers to develop and sustain school gardens and use them as an experiential learning tool, one that connects students to their local environments as well as to the culture, science and politics of food.
The UA partners with the Tucson Community Food Bank, whose Community Food Resource Center helps schools and community organizations that service low-income communities establish gardens on-site.
"A school garden is an innovative and powerful educational tool," said Sallie Marston, professor in the School of Geography and Development and the program's co-manager.
"These children are physically involved in the garden in ways that teach them all kinds of stuff about soil, water, the hydrological cycle, pest control, intermixing plant varieties – you name it," Marston said.
The program recently received a UA Sustainability Fund grant to hire a part-time field coordinator who will help place the growing number of interns in Tucson schools affiliated with the food bank who want to start or expand gardens.
The UA's involvement with the School Garden Program originated with a University student – Morgan Apicella.
As a UA undergraduate volunteering with the food bank, Apicella asked Marston if he could do an independent study project.
Apicella, now a UA graduate student in the School of Geography and Development, wanted to work with Project More High School on its school garden.
With Appicella's work at Project More going well, the food bank asked if the UA could provide more students to help in other schools. Ultimately, Marston developed the School Garden Internship with Sarah Moore, an assistant professor in the School of Geography and Development.
In spring 2010, Marston and Moore piloted the project with six student interns in just two schools. This spring, they have involved 15 students in four schools – Borton Primary Magnet School, Davis Elementary Bilingual Magnet School, Manzo Elementary School and Ochoa Elementary School.
The UA interns assist teachers and students with maintaining school gardens, as well as preparing foods and helping teachers teach about the environment for growing food and food's relationship to culture, politics and social life.
"The students are working to enable an environmental consciousness, a respect for food, and a respect for sustainable food production among young people," Marston said.
Marston and Moore plan to enroll 25 to 30 student interns in Tucson schools next fall. They're also working to find a way to help teachers receive more formal training on school gardens.
For now, they also are developing curricular materials on nutrition, the ecological context of food production, and food histories, geographies and politics. These materials are available to Tucson educators via the School Gardens Program site.
Zotero Citlalcoatl, the community garden coordinator for the food bank, said the program enables UA students to develop stronger leadership skills while mentoring youth and contributing to the community.
"On the school side, the garden programs benefit from extra hands on deck," Citlalcoatl said.
For example, 98 percent of children at Ochoa qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, so the garden provides them and their families access to organic vegetables and allows them to help others. The children regularly collect cans and donate part of their produce to the Casa Maria soup kitchen.
Amy Mellor, a UA Honors College student of Latin American studies and plant sciences, works at Ochoa more than the internship requires.
"I love it. I come here every day. You can't keep me away from here. I have come away with much more than I have provided," Mellor said, adding that she is motivated by the love the children have for the garden.
"Most everyone wants to water or put on rubber boots and chop up compost from breakfast," Mellor said. "My friend Jesus constantly asks me if we can plant more seeds. Hummingbirds and insects are reasons to crowd around and stare in wonder. When we cook ...four and five year olds can completely cook a healthy, nearly gourmet lunch."
The commitment of the families also is evident, as several parents lent a hand on a warm, Friday morning.
McPheeters said that even in the summer when school is not in session, parents and grandparents sign up to tend to the garden in the hot sun. She and others are especially grateful for the help of the UA interns. "The children, families and I find their passion contagious."
Manzo Elementary, located in the Barrio Hollywood neighborhood, is new to the program.
Moses Thompson, the school's counselor, worked with children to transform part of a vacant lot into a desert biome – a Native plant habitat.
Thompson and the students later added rain water harvesting and a desert tortoise habitat. And, this semester, the students are building a vegetable garden in partnership with the National Park Foundation. Also, many Manzo teachers incorporate the garden into their curriculum, using it as a vehicle to teach physical fitness, art, math, reading and science.
For Thompson, the garden is not just about nutrition, it's also about enthnobotany, so he has decided to plant a traditional Hohokam garden.
"If someone comes to me with a crisis, we grab a watering can, grab a shovel, and we go out into the garden and resolve the conflict," Thompson said. "And for kids who are struggling to fit in, kids who are victims of bullying or who are bullying, I try to create cohesive groups, which forces them to go out and cooperate."
It is because of the teachers and interns that the program has been so successful, Sallie Marston said.
"All we are really doing is giving UA students the fundamentals to be useful and ensuring that they have an experience that is educational for them as well," Marston said.
"It's a two-way experience: Our students learn a lot and the Tucson teachers get the support they need to have a garden for their students," she added. "Everyone gets something out of it."