Vertical gardens growing tall in crowded, urban schools

Published on: 
27 Feb 2014
Anisa Heming

As volunteers and teachers around the world gear up for Green Apple Day of Service 2014 next September, Riyaz Gayasaddin and Mike Rennard are working with students in Baltimore City Public Schools to research, plan, plant, harvest and—of course—eat vegetables in indoor vertical gardens in their classrooms. Our friends at Teach for America first told us about Gayasaddin, who is one of their teacher trainers, and Rennard, who is a teacher at Green Street Academy. Gayasaddin was recently profiled in the Baltimore Social Innovation Journal for the work the two are doing and for their hopes to bring vertical gardening to more schools in Baltimore. They are enthusiastic about the lessons that gardening can teach students and about the beauty that vertical gardens can add to a school environment, but their main motivations to begin the project were in the food choices they have witnessed their students making daily. They are working with students to grow fresh produce right in their own school, providing healthier food options and educating students about nutrition.

The Center for Green Schools appeared last year on the TODAY Show during Earth Day with our friend Stephen Ritz, whose Green Bronx Machine organization began in 2010 out of food-focused work he had done with his students at the Discovery School in the South Bronx. Over the course of his students’ vertical farming, they grew 25,000 pounds of vegetables, generated sustainable income, and fed their entire school a healthy meal from the garden every 90 days. His TED Talk about the economic opportunities and self-respect that this transformative work brought his students has had over 700,000 views and is an inspirational look into what on-site and in-classroom gardening projects can do.

Baltimore in particular is positioned to provide its students more and more opportunities for healthy, safe and efficient school environments that provide places to support this kind of learning. Last year, Maryland passed the Baltimore City Public Schools Construction and Revitalization Act of 2013, which leverages $1.1 billion in bond sales to renovate or rebuild 30-35 Baltimore schools, beginning in 2015. School district staff from Baltimore City Public Schools have participated in the Center’s School Sustainability Leaders Summit for the past two years, and the district has a growing focus on sustainability. They’ve forged ahead with a first-ever Energy Management Plan, improved recycling efforts, expanded environmental education programs, and a strong Green Schools Network of staff and partners advocating for, and helping to implement, sustainable practices. With hands-on partners in the schools like Gayasaddin and Rennard, working alongside the school district and city leaders, Baltimore students have a bright future ahead.