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Savannah Urban Garden Alliance is growing community programs
Cassandra Nicholson digs in the dirt with students at Gould Elementary during SUGA’s school garden program. - photo by Molly Hayden

The SUGA Rush Scavenger Hunt runs Saturday, February 17, beginning 10 a.m.

A LARGE number of volunteers dig in the proverbial dirt behind the scenes of the Savannah Urban Garden Alliance.

And in the few short years since the organization began, it has grown into a community of renegade gardeners who continue the fight for food transparency through various outreach programs.

The non-profit wrangles empty lots into community gardens and often hijacks conversations at neighbor potlucks to talk about worm composting.

But most importantly, they educate. And they start ’em young.

It’s Elementary

Cassandra Nicholson arrives at Carrie E. Gould Elementary School in Garden City just as the 9 a.m. bell rings. She likes to come a little early to inspect the garden before the children join her.

This particular Tuesday, though, she doesn’t get much time. Within minutes, 30 fourth-graders run out screaming with joy.

“It lifts my heart every time,” she says. “They are so inspired and proud of their garden.”

Nicholson is the director of education and maintenance for Victory Gardens and oversees SUGA’s school garden program. As of now, the position helps with maintenance of existing public school gardens and provides teachers and students with educational support.

Gould is one of two schools, along with Charles Ellis Montessori Academy, that was chosen for the pilot program.

Nicholson plans the day’s lesson to coincide with the students’ science class. Integrating the discipline reinforces learning, she says, and allows for a deeper understanding of natural systems.

Her voice bellows beneath an oversized straw hat as she addresses the class: “What are you struggling with? What do you not understand?”

During the four-hour visit, older students tug on her overalls to ask questions about photosynthesis, soil science and composting; younger students talk about healthy eating as they pluck arugula straight from the garden to taste.

Both Nicholson and the students are genuinely enthusiastic about the garden. There’s a general sense of community and shared sense of accomplishment amongst the group.

“This is a tangible way for them to see their hard work,” said Nicholson. “They take so much ownership of the process now and it’s obvious that they are proud of the work they have done. They inherently understand the value of growing food for their classmates, especially when it’s healthy food.”

And they often taste the fruits of their labor. Last season, along with a hearty amount of collard greens, broccoli, Bok Choy and carrots, Gould students harvested 60 pounds of sweet potatoes that were turned into a soufflé in the school cafeteria for all to share.

Learning Curve

SUGA published a release a few years ago that stated garden-based learning helps with increased nutrition awareness, environmental awareness, learning achievements, life skills, health and wellness. It motivates young children to ask for vegetables and elevates many parents’ failed attempts at forced healthy eating.

This study made it clear to SUGA that success could only come from focusing on one major project at a time. From there, the school garden manager program was born.

“We try to be a connection point for different types of organization that promote gardening,” says Jennifer Drey, board chair for SUGA. “But as a non-profit, we have limited resources and zero paid employees. We combined all of our efforts and resources to focus on what we thought our community could benefit from the most.”

Drey says children living in urban environments often have a disconnect with their food. They don’t see farming in action, only grocery stores, and never question where that food may come from.

School gardens not only enrich the core curriculum through hands-on learning but also add a sense of adventure and aesthetic appreciation to learning.

This sense of adventure has spilled over into the organization’s first big fundraiser: The SUGA Rush Scavenger Hunt. The event combines the grit of working in the garden with the enthusiasm of watching something impactful grow.

It’s easy to participate: put together a team; fundraise; show up; scavenge. Teams will meet at Forsyth Park directly outside the basketball courts, Saturday, Feb. 17 at 10 a.m.

From there, the citywide event begins. Participants will get a list of clues and items to photograph during their journey. Winning teams take home a small trophy and big ole bragging rights.

“The first goal is to put on a fun event,” says Drey. “But hopefully it will also empower people to think about their own community’s access to food and what we can do to help.”

Teams (up to 5 members) are encouraged to raise $400 or more to help reach the attainable goal of $15,000. To date, they are more than halfway there.

The school garden manager costs around $3,600 per school per year. If the goal is met, SUGA can add two more schools in the upcoming year, which will serve up a whole lot of community gratitude and a much bigger helping of that sweet potato soufflé.