When the late, great Michael Jackson wrote his smash hit Off the Wall, with its signature line “Livin’ off the wall,” he probably didn’t mean it literally. But in a widening number of schools across the country, students are starting to do just that—growing their own food in pouches called Woolly Pockets, hung from outside walls. And if Miguel Nelson, founder of Woolly Pockets, has his way, every school in the country will be eating from their own vertical wall mini-farms.
“There seem to be so many reasons why schools can’t have gardens,” Nelson told Natural Vitality Kids. “We came up with a solution that would actually eliminate all of those reasons—the gardens can be put up on walls. We’ve just started and we already have a couple hundred schools signed up. Our goal is to grow 11,000 school gardens by next summer.”
The Woolly Pocket was created when Nelson wanted to put a family garden on the walls of his home courtyard. “My family—my wife and my kid and I—have a courtyard, and it’s really pretty except for its big, tall blanks walls. So a few years ago I decided we could cover it with plants. I couldn’t find any system on the market that would allow me to do that, so I just came up with an idea to hang plants on the wall, and we did and it worked really well. Then all of our friends liked it so much we decided to go ahead and start making the pockets to sell. A year ago my brother and I started Woolly Pockets online.”
But soon the Woolly Pockets mission expanded to schools, and the Woolly School Garden was born. This came about when Miguel went to hear legendary chef and food activist Alice Waters speak about both a new book she had just written and her Edible Schoolyard program. “We were so inspired by Alice Waters that we made her a Woolly Pocket,” Nelson said. “We also met a school nutrition expert and we started our program in her school. We did this school last August in Los Angeles, and that was the beginning.”
Of course in listening to Alice Waters, the subject of nutrition had to enter the issue—and, for nutrition, the Woolly Pocket was a natural. “When you’re growing your own vegetables organically, that’s nutrition,” Nelson remarked. “That is the basic of nutrition, in and of itself.”
At that same Alice Waters’ talk, Nelson met Emily Burson, a registered dietitian and founder of a company called School Nutrition Plus. “Miguel had a Woolly Pocket in his hand and we just started talking,” Burson told Natural Vitality Kids. “Miguel has a background in art and real estate investing and really doesn’t have much knowledge about the school environment. So it really was a perfect fit, because we have a lot of school and school-garden contacts and he just wanted to get this product in the schools.”
This alliance also meant that the Woolly Pocket could come with a value-added item: a standards-based curriculum that would integrate gardening with classroom education, utilizing the Woolly Pocket. The curriculum has now been developed by School Nutrition Plus and will shortly be accompanying the Woolly School Garden for every school they ship to.
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The curriculum consists of lessons in a wide variety of areas. “We have gardening, agriculture and health lessons in subjects such as history, math, science, English and health,” said Burson. “We make it very easy for the teachers to incorporate the garden. It’s really neat because we customize the lesson to work with a Woolly Pocket instead of a traditional garden; so there is some gardening that can be done right in the classroom, as the Woolly Pocket can be hung anywhere.”
An actual example is an English lesson in which the students read a story about a third grader who is a food critic. He goes out to a restaurant and critiques the food, writes a paragraph about it for the newspaper and gives the restaurant a rating of one to five stars. The students read the story, take produce from the garden and, with the help of the cafeteria, cook an entrée. After tasting it, they then write a review of the entrée themselves and give it one to five stars. It’s a writing exercise that incorporates the garden.
So far, the response from schools has been great. “They love it,” said Nelson. “They’re really inspired, and it’s more fun for the kids. It’s kind of a novelty garden on a wall; it just opens their minds a little more. You don’t have to do the work that you normally would in a garden—you don’t have to shovel; you don’t have to cut any asphalt. It’s not the backbreaking task that some gardens can be. It’s really the funnest part of gardening.”
The Woolly School Garden program doesn’t end when the school receives their materials. Part of the success of the Woolly School Garden involves follow-up to make sure teachers stay inspired, and the company invites schools to send in images of students participating in the program for their newsletter. Woolly Pockets will also be creating a Facebook page that will allow all the schools to share experiences, and they will be updating their gardens with new plants as well.
Then, before you know it . . . all the schools in the US will be eating healthy, livin’ off the wall.
To find out more about Woolly Pockets and the Woolly School Garden, visit the company’s website at www.woollyschoolgarden.org.