Growing Community

Plant the Seed Empowers Nashville's Under-Resourced Children One Garden at a Time

By Joe Nolan

Beyond the larger, sustainable and organic farms that we celebrate in Local Table, the bedrock of slow food is the garden. While many of us are currently whiling away the summer in our backyards weeding, watering, and waiting for those first tomatoes to redden, for many of Nashvilleâ€TM's under-resourced children and their families, a garden is something shared by a community or even tended at a school.

Plant the Seed is a local, not-for-profit program that creates outdoor classrooms, meeting young gardeners on their own turf at school and in their communities to create educational opportunities for mastering gardening, understanding the importance of good nutrition, and cultivating the wonder of watching things grow.

For Plant the Seed Director Susannah Fotopulos, the organization grew out of her relationship with her late father, who shared her love of gardening, eating good food, and teaching.

“My dad passed away three years ago. He was my gardening buddy and my healthy- eating buddy. I feel so connected to him when my hands are in the soil,” she says. “He was always educating and showing, and I really feel like his legacy lives on through me.”

Fotopulos grew up on 72 acres in Marshall County where she and her family tended a two acre garden. It was the bounty from that garden that lead to her first experiencing the transformational power of sharing food.

“My mom canned and we preserved, but we still had so much food from that garden,” she says. “One day we loaded the Chevy pickup and took it to a subsidized housing community and gave away all the extra food.” Although the residents of the community were skeptical at first, a bond was created and return trips with additional garden-grown goodies became more like meetings between friends than charity drops. Fotopulos recalls. “Looking back, that was such a powerful example of how food can connect people from different communities..”

Plant the Seed was founded three years ago and - as with good food - Fotopulos has been very careful to grow the program in a way that is sustainable. Sheâ€TM's joined -up with existing community and school garden programs to make them more effective and to encourage the ongoing viability of those gardens.

“Itâ€TM's hard work building communities,” says Fotopulos. “They donâ€TM't happen overnight and they donâ€TM't happen easily, but itâ€TM's so worth it. When a community or a group of students really learn about gardening and nutrition, it helps to sustain and protect those spaces so that they continue to be used for growing year after year.”

Plant the Seed currently works with East Nashville Cooperative Ministry, where Fotopulos is helping to transform their existing community gardens into outdoor classrooms. They also work with Catholic Charities of Tennessee and Nashville International Academy, where they are also bringing an educational component to their gardens for young people.

This approach to bringing learning into existing community and school gardens resulted from research Fotopulos did by talking to farmers about the educational benefits of going directly to these urban programs.

“I talked to the farms and they saw a lot of benefit in my having a mobile service, that I could take these resources to people at their schools and communities,” she says. “It's been really great to have these neighborhood partnerships that are beneficial but also enduring.”

However, despite all of the resources and knowledge that Plant the Seed brings to its programs and classes, Fotopulos is quick to point out that the greatest resources they tap are the energy and excitement of the kids themselves.

“The enthusiasm of young people is totally infectious and it spreads automatically to their parents and their principals,” she says. “I am never not amazed to see something grow. It amazes me every time it happens. It''s that wonder and that self-sufficiency that kids can really connect to. They are willing to throw a seed in there and see if it comes up or not. A lot of these kids haven't connected in that kind of emotional way to learning.”

Fotopulos hopes that these empowering experiences will carry over not only to healthier eating, but to higher performance in the classroom as well.

“What weâ€TM're learning is that, in order to close that achievement gap, youâ€TM've got to close the experience gap. Thatâ€TM's what weâ€TM'd like to see happen in other populations. Iâ€TM'd love to see us in a program in north Nashville. I think weâ€TM'll get to south Nashville through Catholic Charities this summer,” she says, noting that expanding a child's horizons through learning new skills, trying new foods, and meeting new people can be an important first step to empowering a kid to realize his or her full potential.

“It''s my hope that theyâ€TM'll be inspired in these spaces, and itâ€TMs my hope that these kids will develop a hunger for life-long learning about gardening and about community building,” says Fotopulos. Sometimes it takes a village to raise a child. Sometimes it takes a garden to raise a community.

[incl. Bio from spring issue