High school lessons on government and the economy can have a dangerous tendency towards boring and tedious, but for the past twelve years, Martha Cason has led the Garza’s Gardens program at Garza Independence High School in a way that erases the tedium. Instead, concepts of government, economy, horticulture, and sustainability escape the realm of theory and become real-life practice.
Garza’s Gardens are a collection of 4’ x 8’ raised beds that occupy every free ground space on the campus. There are 40 herb beds, 31 vegetable beds, 5 grapevines, and fruit trees bearing figs, apples, and peaches. All of the beds are built and maintained by students who choose one crop at the beginning of the unit and are responsible for it throughout the program. This year there’s even a greenhouse with experimental aquaponics. The gardens are operated sustainably and with attention to organic growing methods. Heirloom varieties abound, and seed-saving is part of the lesson plan.
Garza is not your typical high school, and the Garza’s Gardens unit is not your typical curriculum. Garza is a self-paced school for students who have barriers to success in traditional classes. Here, they have access to supportive staff and programs that provide hands-on experience in subjects that touch on real-world issues. Students in Ms. Cason’s garden unit earn course credits in economics, government, horticulture, and agricultural business. They also have the opportunity to earn credits in agricultural science and applied mathematics.
Students consider how government agriculture bills impact the foods that are readily available to them, and how economic policies affect the price of the foods they eat. They learn about food deserts by overlaying maps of Austin with locations of urban farms, fast food restaurants, and grocery stores. The course reading list is heavy on big names in food, like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Joel Salatin. TED talks are a critical part of the curriculum, bringing ideas from forward thinkers to these young people focusing on urban agriculture.
Garza’s Gardens is a whole sequence of practical lessons. Each of the disparate concepts dovetails nicely together to demonstrate each student’s personal connection to agriculture, the economy, and government policy. The vegetables they grow are served right on campus in the school’s cafeteria. Just last week the students harvested twelve pounds of carrots, beets, onions and lettuce for their own school lunches. They have a regular standing order with Farm-to-Table, a wholesaler who distributes their herbs to area restaurants. And they sell both fresh and dried herb bundles each Wednesday at The Triangle farmer’s market.
Ms. Cason knows that the garden program won’t keep students from indulging in fast food, but she’s glad that it provides them with the knowledge they need in order to make informed decisions. She believes that as they grow older and begin their own families, they will probably remember the lessons they learned under her tutelage. It’s also nice to see that after twelve years, her work is no longer a pie-in-the-sky idea; it’s a practical reality in action.