BURZACO - Carrot leaves are poking through the soil, the lettuces are green and leafy, and the spring onions are standing tall: these vegetables are being nurured at secondary school No. 56 in Burzaco, 25 kilometers south of Buenos Aires. And as the vegetables have put down roots, classroom violence has been on a sharp decline — a clear sign of how Mother Nature has a way of mitigating the most negative human traits.
“We used to look for the smallest excuse to fight, then we started this project and the school changed a lot,” says Nicolás, a fourth-year student who is among the most dedicated to the garden. “Now, if we’re not feeling great, we come to the vegetable garden, we put on some music, and we work.”
Claudia Concetti, deputy head of the school, says the vegetable garden project was initiated thanks to an idea from physics and chemistry teacher Silvia Müller. “Six years ago, the school had serious problems with violence,” Concetti explains. “The students would use physical and verbal assaults to release their pent-up energy. Ms. Müller started to ask questions, and it came out that the students wanted to work on the land.” Now they nurture the garden with the same energy and intensity that was previously so destructive.
Everything improved when Müller contacted the Children’s Vegetable Garden Foundation (Fundación Huerta Niño), which supported the school by providing information and infrastructure. At the start, they were planting at the wrong time, and they didn’t know how to care for certain vegetables. With the help of the foundation, they fenced in the garden and learned how to work it.
The Children’s Vegetable Garden Foundation was created in 1999 to combat child hunger and malnutrition in Argentina by building vegetable gardens of half a hectare, especially in rural schools. The charity holds that vegetable gardens are a “real solution, tried and tested, and sustainable. Not welfare, nor burying the problems.” Juan Lapetini, foundation director, characterizes it as “a way of generating knowledge and involving the community.”
Fertile ground for peace
Before the vegetable garden project, violence was an “everyday” problem at the school, Concetti says. For these students, daily life was comprised of fighting, discrimination, verbal aggression, physical assaults at break time and brawling when they left the classroom. With the vegetable garden, “all that was reduced to almost zero,” she says. The project has not only decreased the levels of violence but also directly resulted in better marks and attendance. It has even had a positive impact on school solidarity and team spirit.
Carlos, a fourth-year student, picks up a shovel and enthusiastically starts to weed. “I took home a lettuce and a cauliflower,” he says. “The vegetables are delicious — very big and different from those that you get in the greengrocer’s. The taste, the colour, the texture….”
Some of the vegetables are used in the school kitchen, and others are shared with the local community. There are 200 vegetable gardens just like this one in other provinces. The first one was in the province of Chaco, in Guará. Now there are 12,000 students involved in similar projects.
Lapetini says that the idea is for the vegetable garden to supplement food in the school kitchen and for the children to take any surplus home with them. The project could even be turned into a business to raise money for the school. Finally, he says, they hope the children will replicate the gardens at their homes. “Take the seeds home,” as he puts it, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. The most complicated part, he acknowledges, is encouraging the family to cook with the produce because, unfortunately, many parents don’t eat vegetables.
Wherever possible, teachers link classroom learning with the garden project. In mathematics, for example, students estimate the percentage of water necessary for the tomatoes to grow. In geography, they learn about different crops in relation to regions, zones and climates. The students even studied their ancestral past to develop a better understanding of the work of their farming grandparents.
Matías, another student, says that he can now distinguish the different flavors attained by planting in season and without using chemicals. “I work in a greengrocer’s shop, and the tomatoes there aren’t the same,” he says. “They use lots more chemicals, and they are left in a room while they turn red.”