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Harvest of disappointment

As the growing season winds down, one Baltimore City school garden has harvested next to nothing. A project intended to enliven lessons or inspire healthier eating came down to four neglected beds yielding two cinder-block-sized zucchini.

The garden brings to mind an all-too-common twist on the line from the movie "Field of Dreams": If you build it, they won't necessarily come. School-community collaborations like this project have a lot to recommend them and are a favored vehicle for doing more with less at schools. But largesse on one side, in this case the side of the broader community, isn't enough to produce the desired result. However beautiful the dream, the school won't come if it wasn't sufficiently involved in the first place.

A garden at Guilford Elementary/Middle School seemed like a bright idea in the spring of 2011. An energetic young Americorps VISTA member under the wing of a community development organization won money to build the beds. The VISTA worker, juggling many responsibilities, tried to interest teachers or other staff members in the garden as a teaching tool, and got a few nibbles. Who would be against more hands-on science, care for the environment or better nutrition?

But in the new school year, no school staff member emerged with a commitment to the project, perhaps because everyone was already busy and no one knew how to make the garden fit with their existing priorities. The money for it was there, though, and several volunteer master gardeners, trained by University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service, were ready. So four sturdy, shin-high garden boxes were built in a day. An involved neighbor also sowed winter wheat that could be turned over to enrich the soil in the spring. The garden was equipped with a tumbling composter bin and a hose on a caddy.

When spring arrived, a staff member from a local university came with a student volunteer to lead an environmental club for an hour a week. Students pulled some of the wheat and stuffed it into the composter. They pressed some seeds into a bed and scooped out a place for a few strawberry plants. The flat with the remaining seedlings languished on the edge of a board for weeks.

In April, Baltimore City school board member Robert W. Heck commented on the garden at a public board meeting, saying he drove past the school often. He asked if he had spied corn growing on the school's grounds. "Well, no, not corn," someone from the school told him. "It's wheat." Calling the garden "a positive note," Mr. Heck urged the school to let him know how the harvest turned out.

In the summer, with the winter wheat still tall in three of the boxes and no one tending the plants in the fourth, money not yet spent from the grant went to a plastic tool shed stocked with trowels, gardening forks and rubber gloves. Within a week or two, young teens, who were also probably students at the school, tore apart the padlocked shed near the garden and scattered the tools. A representative of the community organization reassembled the shed and bought more tools. In another week or so, the shed was smashed beyond repair, most of the tools gone. There had been no one ready to use them anyway.

Where did the project falter? The incentives at play were part of it: Recognition accrues to organizations and the people in them for getting money, starting a project, building something, chalking up partnerships, looking environmentally conscious. The hard work of making a project meaningful in the life of a school — meaningful enough that people on the scene will own the innovation — can easily go unrewarded. In this case, a package of good intentions and misplaced incentives was tied with a bow of wishful thinking.

As this fall rolled around, the neighborhood volunteer weed-whacked the winter wheat into stubble, and the compost bin became an impromptu trash can. After I toted home the giant zucchini, the garden lay fallow except for the tiny strawberry patch.

Maybe that good earth produced some opportunities for students at the school. I'm not sure. Certainly, there are no "bad guys" in this story, and the school and the community have generally had good relations. But I can say that money and time were wasted, projects and partnerships appeared in reports as accomplishments and a school board member took pride in an illusion.

When money is scarce and children are depending on schools to have a chance at a decent life, that's not much of a harvest.

Bess Keller is a graduate student in public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a resident of Baltimore. Her email is besskeller@gmail.com.

Clarification: The original version of this article implied that money from the Parks and People Foundation was used to pay for the garden boxes described in the article, which was not the case.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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