Gardeneers are dedicated leaders who sustain school gardens in the city of Chicago — and empower students to enrich their knowledge of nutrition, connect with their community and become stewards of the environment.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Zmick, Co-Founder, to learn more about Gardeneers.
Can you put your finger on the moment of inspiration that served as your launching point for your organization? Our Co-Founder, May Tsupros, and I were both high school teachers for Teach for America, but at separate times. We met through a Teach for America alumni event when there was a discussion about who was interested in starting new ventures. We shared the goal of improving the nutritional deficiencies we both observed among students. We realized we had similar ideas and decided to work together. That was Fall, 2013. By January, 2014, we had founded Gardeneers and had our first two schools on board.
What impact on students have you seen through the program? It is good for kids to get outside, participating in experiential learning instead of learning from books. Gardeneers has prompted them to them to eat better. If you offered a child kale normally, most wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. But with the program, they have participated in the whole process and take ownership, so yes, they will try the kale. What’s great is that students are taking what they learn home with them — quite literally. If we have extra seedlings after planting the school garden, the kids will take them home, introduce their families to what we do and plant the seedling in their back yard.
What is your most proud accomplishment so far? Definitely when kids bring concepts — and produce or plants — home to their families and show them the fruits of their labor. They also teach their families how to eat healthier. I love it when I get parents asking how we got their child to ask for salad at dinner.
Any surprises along the way? Things that you’ve experienced that you didn’t expect to? Starting an organization like this is a real challenge every step of the way. Every day it seems there’s a new challenge. We’ve had three vehicle breakdowns in the last month. Other times, we had sponsorship pledges didn’t come through. Or we discover at the eleventh hour for a project that there is some piece of paperwork not turned in. It’s not easy, but it is so worth it.
Do you ever collaborate or network with other nonprofits? Sure.A few recent collaborations have including hosting work days with Junior League of Chicago, Honeycomb Project, Chicago Cares. We have also joined forces on programming with Pilot Light and Common Threads on topics around nutritional education and growing food used in cooking classes.
Let’s talk numbers. What kinds of metrics can you provide that allows people to get a sense of the effect your organization has had? We served more than 1,200 students last year and expect to serve more than 1,500 this year. Things look very positive for going forward. We conduct surveys of both students and school leaders. All current school leaders plan to continue with Gardeneers next year. We are working towards collecting data regarding preferences for specific fruits and vegetables.
If people want to help your efforts, what can they do? Volunteering and financial donations are the most common ways people and organizations contribute. Another way that many may not think of is to donate gardening tools. If your business or other organization is retiring garden tools such as wheel barrows, shovels, shears or trowels, we could really use them.
What is one thing that you want people to know about your organization?
We are so incredibly thankful for the remarkable degree of support we have received from the community so far. Our annual Growing Healthy Futures Gala is a great event and way to get to know the organization. In 2017, it will be on October 19.
How do kids opt in? Great questions! Actually, principals make the decision to join Gardeneers and they decided which group of students participate. Typically, they might choose to work with the classes of a few teachers who have shown the most interest or it might fit into a certain grade’s curriculum. Every schools has different needs, so we adapt each garden to fit the school. In some cases, we age up with the kids, so we might start with them in 2nd grade and move up with that same group of students each year. In other cases, we always work with stay a certain grade and students shift year-to-year.