With lettuce, peas, and radishes seeds and a few heaping bags of potting soil, Megan Chen is helping her community flourish one container garden at a time.
The 16-year-old has been planting vegetables, herbs, and fruits for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Newark with limited space to garden and an evolving desire to learn more about its impact on the environment, she turned to container gardening.
Inside her home she regularly tends to stalks of leafy greens and root vegetables, helping provide several healthy foods her own family enjoys around the dinner table.
Chen wondered if she had a story to tell that might inspire younger kids to learn about and appreciate gardening and maybe even choose to eat healthier foods.
The Newark Charter School junior mapped out her concept – The Urban Garden Initiative – to connect her knowledge and passion with kids likely unfamiliar with potting soil and urban gardening. And she worked to establish her initiative as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit this past summer.
By taking her urban gardening idea on the road to a number of middle schools throughout New Castle County, Chen is teaching students in preschool through middle school that it’s fun to get your hands dirty and easy to plant and maintain an indoor or outdoor garden.
Along with the gardening instruction, Chen also teaches children a little about environmental science.
“One of the main reasons we started this was because larger issues of climate change and global warming are extremely important now and they’ll directly affect us in the future,” said Chen. “We need to talk about these issues more to create a bigger change and more solutions. Starting with younger students definitely helps because they’ll have more time to make a change.”
Chen contacted several schools and community centers who were receptive to her gardening roadshow idea. She tries to schedule the workshops to take place as soon as she is dismissed from her own classes at Newark Charter. “It’s been pretty challenging to pull this off,” she said.
Her mom drives her, and at each visit, they typically have to lug 50-pound bags of potting soil, containers, spades and watering cans up a few flights of stairs to a classroom.
The first 45 minutes of her workshop focuses on the effects of human activity, fossil fuels and deforestation on global warming and the results of climate change on oceans, weather and food.
Then students are divided into small groups of two or three, and they get to choose which vegetable they would like to plant in a shared container. Chen then shares instructions on how children and their teachers can maintain the containers themselves.
She emphasizes seasonal gardening, teaching students they can enjoy growing different types of vegetables and fruits year-round.
“I’ve been running my own garden since I was young. So when I heard about the food deserts [urban communities where it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food] in Wilmington, I decided to set up an initiative to teach young students about food waste and sustainability,” said Chen. “When I was younger, gardening gave me a personal window to learn about these issues affecting my community.”
The Urban Gardening Initiative has already visited Shue-Medill Middle, Bellevue Community Center, the Odyssey Charter School and The Bancroft School, to name a few. Chen would like to eventually expand her program to other school districts in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“I have a lot of experience with gardening, and I found container gardening to be one of the easiest and most portable forms of gardening to teach students,” said Chen. “Students learn how to tackle environmental issues by starting their own gardens.”
Chen has introduced her ideas to over 400 students since she launched the program in August. Last month a mutual friend connected Chen to Sophia Angeletakis, a University of Delaware student who recently built a courtyard garden at Nemours / A.I. duPont Hospital for Children. Angeletakis offered to join The Urban Garden Initiative Team by helping with organizational structure and eventually joined the organization’s Board of Directors.
Angeletakis is studying Health and Behavioral Science with a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. “This message is so important for the next generation to understand,” said Angeletakis. “I appreciate Megan’s drive to educate our local community beyond what healthy living and environmental awareness means, and how students can apply it to their lives.”
When Chen’s not teaching programs at schools, she’s taking five Advanced Placement and two honors courses at Newark Charter School.
“It’s a major balancing act between school and The Urban Gardening Initiative because we would like to expand our outreach and number of volunteers,” said Chen. “When I go to college, I will continue the organization no matter where I go.”