Hendrix Magazine

A Garden-Grown Odyssey

By Amy Meredith Forbus ’96 

Growing up in Little Rock, Emily English ’02 had no experience with gardening. She hopes her current work leads to fewer Arkansas children being able to make that claim.

As Program Manager of the Delta Garden Study for the Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, English works on a USDA-funded research project bringing fruit and vegetable gardens to 10 middle schools across the state.

"As far as we can tell, it’s the largest school garden research study that’s ever been conducted," English says, adding that school gardens can help students make valuable connections, both to where their food comes from and to other aspects of having a healthful life.

Focus on sustainability

She’s a city dweller who loves farming. How did that happen?

"There’s farming in my roots, but nothing I remember, per se," she said. "I’ve always been very connected with the environment and being outside, even as a small child.

"It turned into sustainable agriculture when I started to focus."

English’s time at Hendrix helped her hone in on her interests to the point that she was able to create her own degree program. Working with an advisory team of four professors, she chose Sustainability, Culture and Environment as her major, which included studies in science, sociology, politics, and anthropology. She also earned a minor in religion.

As she designed her major, English’s advisory team encouraged her to think carefully about her word choice.

"We talked about using the word ‘sustainability,’ and the dangers of it being a buzzword," she said. "They had me keep that in mind ... [but] I wanted to understand this idea of sustainability as something that could be applied to every area of your life. It’s so exciting that now I think we can safely say that it is no longer considered a buzzword."

One of the experiences that led her to that particular word choice came during her sophomore year. She enrolled in religion professor Dr. Jay McDaniel’s State of the World course, which required logging five hours of service learning per week. McDaniel recommended Heifer Ranch in Perryville, as a service learning option.

Owned and operated by Heifer International, Heifer Ranch includes a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. English’s service learning hours at the farm soon extended beyond her course requirements. She even used the farm as a case study for her senior thesis.

"I just really fell in love with the magic of growing food," she said, "and had a hard time walking away from it. I connected growing fresh produce with the sustainability of individuals, communities and relationships."

Some of her core classes came from outside of Hendrix. In the fall of English’s junior year, she studied abroad through the University of New Hampshire in a four-month learning community-designed program. "It examined the study of sustainability in the context of community, ecology, and spirituality," she said.

The study included time in Vermont and France, then an extended amount of time in India, where the students lived for two months with "a sustainable spiritual community, who through the study of their spirituality had developed a lot of sustainable practices around living and growing and being together," she said.

English appreciated the support of her advisory team in pursuing the study abroad option. "They understood that this could form the core of my major," she said, "and that they could continue to support and enhance it during the rest of my time at Hendrix.

"It was amazing, and very life-changing."

Discovering a calling

As her 2002 commencement approached, English became convinced that she needed to spend time as a full-time farmer. "So I went to Heifer and I farmed," she said. After graduation, she secured a job at Heifer Ranch, working on the CSA farm during 2002 and 2003.

"I worked for a $200 a month volunteer stipend," she said. "I didn’t really know if I would be a farmer the rest of my life, but I knew that somehow or another, my destiny was to be involved in this movement toward fresh, local produce, and helping people reconnect to where their food comes from.

"I decided that no matter what, I needed to know how to grow, and I loved it. I loved farming," she said. "I loved being outside, I loved the magic of putting a seed in the ground and taking care of it, and watching it grow, and then feeding people. That was the best part of all of it, sharing that harvest."

Weekly deliveries to Conway and Little Rock gave her the opportunity to take food harvested from the eight-acre plot of land and put it directly into the hands of the people who would eat it.

It was during those deliveries that she first saw a child get excited about a vegetable.

"Kids loved our fresh tomatoes," English said. "It was amazing having kids come up and eat and be covered in tomato juice ... knowing that they could pick them up and eat them right there. They were freshly plucked, chemical-free, sweet, tasty tomatoes. Nutrition at its finest!"

In 2004, English returned to Little Rock and took a job at Boulevard Bread Company. Boulevard’s then-owner, Scott McGehee, knew her background and asked her to help him start Boulevard Organics, a small farming enterprise that served the bread company and sold at the Little Rock Farmers Market.

It was during the Boulevard Organics year that English realized how much she valued the educational aspects of growing produce.

"At Heifer, there were kids who came and did service learning, and there were all kinds of educational experiences for people, and I missed that part of it," she said. "And I think it was that moment of farming just for business that I realized how important the service of education was to me.

"I definitely believe you can combine the two, but I’m not a business person, I’m a service person."

A broader context

English then held a couple of other jobs in other states—some related to farming, others not. For the 2006 growing season, she returned to Heifer Ranch as a co-manager of the CSA farm. Returning to that work helped her conclude that it was time for another adventure in learning.

"It was in that year that I realized again, ‘It’s time to go back to school. It’s time to figure out how I can apply this to a larger picture,’" she said. "What’s the bigger picture? How can I take my skills and my interest level and apply it in a way that really moves the movement?"

She saw two options: Learning more about health education and nutrition, or more about how to serve the world. She considered applying either to the UAMS College of Public Health or to the Clinton School of Public Service.

While researching her options, English discovered that the two schools were starting a program together. The timing was perfect, and the partnership matched her interests. She earned concurrent masters degrees in public health and public service, graduating from both schools in December 2009.

During her time at the Clinton School and UAMS, she joined the board of Arkansas Urban Gardening Education Resources, Inc. (AUGER), the non-profit organization that works with Dunbar Garden, the community garden situated between Little Rock’s Gibbs Elementary and Dunbar Middle Schools.

Her work with AUGER led to her work on the planning committee for a farm-to-school conference for Arkansas.

"‘Farm-to-school’ is a national movement to get fresh produce into school cafeterias," English said. "My capstone project for both of my degrees was to help plan Arkansas’ first statewide farm-to-school conference, sponsored by Heifer in November of 2009."

Around the same time, the Children’s Hospital Research Institute approached AUGER for help in gardening expertise. The Institute was preparing a grant proposal to the USDA that would fund research examining the impact of school gardens on childhood obesity.

The convergence led to English’s dream job.

The Institute needed to know how to build a school garden. They also needed to know what the school garden movement looked like, what its larger implications were, and what was already going on.

"I had just finished my master’s, so my work experience and education lined me up to be exactly what they needed," English said. "And so when they got funded and the position of program manager opened up, I applied."

The Delta Garden Study team spent the first year of the four-year study designing the program: curriculum, garden plans and building relationships with the schools. One test garden is already in progress, and in the fall of 2011, four more will launch. The remaining five schools will launch their gardens in the 2012-2013 school year.

The study will monitor students’ fruit and vegetable intake, physical activity levels, academic achievement and a concept known as school bonding.

"School bonding is a child’s attachment to his or her teachers, peers, and to the school in general," she said. Literature shows that children with those types of strong connections may have lower rates of absenteeism, fighting and other social risk behaviors.

"Each of our ten intervention schools, those with gardens, will be demographically pair-matched with a control school," English says. "Both will be measured exactly the same, and hopefully allow us to draw conclusions about the impact of gardens on these identified childhood obesity risk factors."

Each of the intervention schools receives its full-time Garden Program Specialist in June. That person then spends the summer developing a small section of the garden to serve as a model for what the students will do.

"When the kids come to school, they’re inspired, and they’re excited, and they get to taste something right away," English says. "And then they spend the duration of the school year expanding, using that initial garden as motivation."

Mabelvale Middle School has served as the test site, and English reports that the experiment is going well.

"So far, the kids are enjoying it," she says. "They’ve seen and tasted new vegetables, they’ve prepared recipes from garden-fresh produce, they’ve learned how to use shovels and hoes and raise worms.

"We want [kids] to take responsibility for what they eat. When they’re at the grocery store, we hope they will be able to recognize what all those different vegetables are, and to be able to ask for them from their parents or at a restaurant or wherever life takes them. We also want them to know that it can taste good, too—it can be healthy and taste good."

English also hopes to see at least a few students develop the same excitement she has for growing food.

"Even if out of the whole study we get just a couple of kids interested in growing, then we’re contributing to the number of farmers in our state and in our country, we’re increasing the ability for other people to have access to fresh produce," she says.

She is especially glad that she has had the experience of working in the fields, dealing with pests, bad weather, drought and more.

"I never thought I would be in research at all," English says. But it doesn’t just feel like research to her. "It feels like grassroots community development around school gardens and our local food system. But, it’s the research component that gives us an opportunity to gather much-needed data that will hopefully be the evidence we need to ask for systematic change."

It’s a path she may not have expected to follow, but one she truly enjoys.

"I don’t think coming out of Hendrix I knew exactly where I would be in 10 years, but this is quite a fantastic place," she says. "And I’m really glad that I’m in Arkansas, and that I’ve been a part of and witnessed the growth of Arkansas’ local food system and sustainable agriculture movement.

"I am so glad to see this movement grow in Arkansas. There are amazing people out there working to make these changes reality for our state. It pleases me to be part of it all, and I’m incredibly excited to see what our future holds."

Amy Meredith Forbus ’96 is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, the newspaper of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church. She lives in Little Rock with her husband John.