How One School Garden Grew During a Pandemic

by Erin Peterson, Peninsula Union School


We have all had to learn new ways to live this past year. It’s been a year of great change, reflection, growth, and loss. From these changes, however, we have learned new ways of being that will forever change us and how we relate to the world around us. Many have discovered a new love of the outdoors, including gardening. In our little school garden at Pacific Union School in Arcata, this time of isolation and change has forced us to grow in ways that we had never imagined possible. While we all miss being physically together, and the damaging effects of this pandemic are not equally distributed, we are proud of how we have risen as a community to meet this challenge.

As the world shut down and our school closed along with it, we immediately began to search for ways to continue to serve our community. The first step we took was to rethink our physical garden space, transforming it from a “learning lab” into a food production space to help feed our community. Working closely with kitchen staff, we delivered farm shares to families who receive free and low cost school lunches (51% of our school population qualifies). We plan to continue this valuable program as we return to growing in the Spring of 2021 and beyond.

As time went on and it became clear that distance learning was our new normal, we established a robust online garden curriculum that included weekly garden videos featuring tours of the garden, cooking lessons, stories, songs, pictures, art, and home activities using recycled and easy to find supplies. We also fulfilled a long time goal of using our program as a county-wide model by sharing these videos through the Humboldt County Office of Education. After-school programs across the county, which usually include gardening in their hands-on learning, have used our garden videos to encourage students to get outside and get their hands dirty.

As the weather cooled and the pandemic strained local food banks, we created a program called Sandwich Sundays. In Arcata there is no community food offered between Friday and Monday, and we realized our garden could help. Using produce from the garden along with other supplies donated by community members, we make 90-100 sandwiches each week to hand out to local residents living without housing and proper nutrition. Even during the winter months, with help from our community, we have been able to provide critical food distribution to our community (we still have lettuce and some onions from the garden to include!).

As Pacific Union returns to school, however that may look, the ideas of food instability, food justice, and sharing produce will continue to be central to our garden curriculum. As we navigate 2021 our objective will remain, as always, to teach our students to be responsible stewards of our planet, lovers of the outdoors, and strong community members. Especially during this crisis, nature provides a welcome solace and connection to things that are familiar. We will do everything we can to ensure that our garden continues to shine as a bright light, possibly brighter and more vital than ever, for our students, our teachers and our whole community.

The garden is a grant-funded program at Pacific Union School, a public grade school in Arcata. Watch our garden videos on YouTube @Farmer Erin Peterson.

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Erin Peterson was born and raised in Humboldt County in a family of avid gardeners. She has been the farmer at Pacific Union School for the past four years.
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Posted in 2021 Community Food Guide.