On Aldine Street in Newark, nestled between a parking lot and an abandoned building, you’ll find a thriving community garden. Two years ago it was an overgrown, vacant lot with trash strewn about it. Now it has a greenhouse and planting boxes where students grow garlic, radishes, arugula, spinach, and more. It is the Aldine Street Community Garden.

How it all started

Two years ago, Uzma Chowdhury, an incoming Teach For America corps member and now KIPP Seek Academy teacher, shared her vision for community gardens with her school leader and director of school operations.

In college, Chowdhury started a program with urban gardens to do two things: first to provide kids in Clark Athens County, Georgia with fresh organic fruits and vegetables, and second, to keep kids active and invested in improving their community.

“I saw it as a way to get kids involved in something that makes the community better.” She told me. “The feeling that ‘I built that’ or ‘I made that’ was really important to them, coming from a place where they didn't have much at all to do after school.”

In Newark, Chowdhury saw the vacant lots all over the South Ward and seized the opportunity. With help from her DSO and her school leader’s backing, Uzma worked with KIPP’s real estate team to secure an adopt-a-lot lease for the vacant lot. Then she set up partnerships with the Greater Newark Conservancy and other community organizations.

Going from lot to garden

Once they secured the adopt-a-lot lease, they still had a lot of work to get the lot ready – and not much time. Chowdhury says, “When we got the lease, we found out that we had to have the whole lot cleared of debris and junk within 30 days, which was a complete surprise.”

Needing to get the lot cleared, the teachers and staff of Seek came together one Saturday to help clear the lot and build planting boxes. They had help from Jersey Cares and interested neighbors who saw people cleaning an eyesore and wanted to help out.

One neighbor commented, “My son woke me up to come see this because nobody has cared about this lot or this street until today.”

After their all-hands-on-deck Saturday, the clean and green team from the Greater Newark Conservancy came to remove evasive species and spread mulch in the newly built planters. Seeds were provided through a matching grant with New Jersey Eco-Schools and water barrels were set up to collect rain water for the lot (which has no water supply).

Chowdhury worked with Rebecca Fletcher, the Seek teacher who organized enrichment programming to get kids into the garden. They started an EcoSeekers program that just finished its second year.

Second graders take care of the garden, watering plants, cleaning out weeds, planting new vegetables, and ensuring the garden is a clean, safe place for the plants to grow.

Chowdhury teaching in the garden Teacher Uzma Chowdhury shows her second-grade class how to water plants in a planting box.

“The short-term impact is that the kids are noticeably more caring about the environment and more conscious of food and things like that and how hard it is to make food happen.” Chowdhury has seen lessons sprout where she didn’t expect them. “They are learning about taking care of things. They have this intense feeling of ‘we need to get rid of that piece of trash! It’s hurting our plants!’”

The future

Hoping to expand the program into after school next year, Chowdhury has high hopes. “Now we’re looking at putting amendments into the soil to make it richer – all organic – like manure and fertilizer.”

She also sees the long-term impact on kids, and how it plays into the character curriculum at Seek. “This is a way to show them, even when you’re seven or six or five, Newark, NJ is a place you are already making better. I want kids to know what it means when we say “We are Newark, New Jersey” every morning.”


If you want to make your own

Asked about advice for other teachers who want to start a program like this, Chowdhury says to start looking at non-profits in your area. “They almost all have free seeds and soil, plus a lot of other stuff.”

The biggest hurdle to solve for is space, but if you have some room on your campus, it might be as simple as asking for permission. If finding space is a challenge, like at Seek, look for adopt-a-lot programs in your city. “Through my research,” Chowdhury says, “I found that most cities have some sort of adopt-a-lot program, usually with one dollar a year leases. Whether it’s through a city or a non-profit, there are people trying to use vacant lots for good.”

And this isn’t just happening at Seek. KIPP’s 18th Avenue campus has a student-led garden next to their playground, and KIPP TEAM Academy supports a garden across the street from their school.

Check out the video below, put together for our Be the Change Celebration, for more information on the Aldine Street Community Garden.

Be the Change 2016 Aldine Street Community Garden from KIPP New Jersey on Vimeo.

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