Woodson Students Farm Vegetables on School Grounds for Fairfax Families In Need
Tucked between Woodson High School tennis courts and the school’s science lab wing, junior Victoria Caswell leans over a garden bed and plucks mixed greens from the ground that will wind up on the dinner plates of a local family.
Caswell is one of dozens of Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) students who jumped into action when local food pantries reported a 400 percent increase in demand at the start of the pandemic.
At Woodson High in Fairfax, students in the Environmental Club and their faculty advisers saw a chance to use school garden plots for the first time to help struggling local families eager to serve fresh vegetables at meals. Students prepared, designed and planted the garden in March, and have already harvested and donated six pounds of spinach, rainbow chard, and lettuce. Future Woodson bounties from the eight beds at the school will include squash, cucumber, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and beans.
Caswell said the slowdown in typical school-year activities during the pandemic became the perfect opportunity to hone her gardening skills, and put them to use for community service.
"I thought it was a good chance for me to get outside and do something to help," Caswell said.
Woodson is one of four FCPS schools that had a partnership this year with the Fairfax Food Council. Three elementary schools -- Stratford Landing in Alexandria, Belvedere in Falls Church, and Lynbrook in Springfield, also participated, Fairfax Food Council’s Urban Ag Group co-chair and Belvedere Elementary’s staff environmental educator Stacey Evers said.
Both Belvedere and Woodson donate their produce to Food for Others, a Fairfax, Va.-based organization that helps connect families in need with food.
Belvedere alone has already donated 51.5 pounds of produce such as carrots, kale, collards, radishes, spinach, and potatoes, said Evers, who is also Belvedere Elementary’s staff environmental educator.
Four other FCPS schools, Justice High School, Beech Tree Elementary School and Timber Lane Elementary School in Falls Church, as well as Mason Crest Elementary in Annandale, also grew produce for distribution this year through a separate partnership with a group known as Grow a Row, Evers said.
The spike in demand for food at the onset of the pandemic led Food for Others, an Ignite Partner of FCPS, and the Fairfax Food Council to begin thinking of different ways to spur contributions to food banks.
Food for Others is currently serving 3,500 to 4,000 families a week in Northern Va., up from roughly 1,800 families a week prior to the pandemic, according to executive director Annie Turner.
"Many partners weren’t able to bring food anymore. Restaurants were closed, farmers were struggling," Fairfax Food Council’s Evers said. "I think we have almost 100 schools with a garden – so we said let’s see if we can boost production at some of them."
At Woodson, master gardener Tony Makara taught the students how to assess the soil, identify weeds, plan and design what to plant, and then properly maintain the beds.
The contributions from school gardens have made “such a difference,” Food for Others’ Turner said, noting that they’ve served to boost available produce for families and raise awareness in the region about food scarcity issues.
Woodson High science department chairwoman and Environmental Club adviser Lauren Kinne said farming for food banks met a variety of goals she had for students during the pandemic year.
"The link between improved mental health and being in nature is real," Kinne, who teaches biology at Woodson and oversaw the school’s garden project, said. "They were also able to safely work on a group activity during the pandemic: they could socially distance by tending to separate garden beds, being outdoors, wearing masks and give back to the community at the same time."
Kimberly Austin, also a Woodson junior, says those goals were met.
“I learned about soil, the best time to plant things and weeding and watering techniques,” Austin said. “And then you get to watch everything grow. It is so rewarding to see things through, knowing it will eventually benefit people in our area that need help."