At Idlewild Elementary, students and adults work together to grow and use food sustainably
It all started when a group of students at Idlewild Elementary School had a free class period just before winter break. They started talking about how much food they saw thrown away in their cafeteria and wondered if there was something they could do about it. That conversation grew into a PowerPoint presentation they made for school administrators and teachers. And that presentation grew into Waste Not, a share table for unopened, packaged food.
Students collected their classmates’ unwanted food at lunch and in the school’s after-care program, sorting it to be sure it was unopened and safe for sharing. Then it was placed on a share table, where kids could access it at various points during the day. Kindergartners ate some of the recovered food during snack time; other kids would choose something to eat during recess. Unopened frozen fruit cups from the cafeteria stocked the teachers lounge refrigerator.
Marilla Rupke was one of the kids who helped run the Waste Not program during the 2022-23 school year. She saw two main ways the program helped the school.
“I think it definitely helped with the waste,” she said. “But it also taught kids that they could make a difference too.”
Waste Not is just one way that kids at Idlewild have learned they can make a difference in regards to food.
Through teacher-led and student-led initiatives, parent input, and community partnerships, every student at Idlewild has hands-on involvement with the food system.
Erin Pauley is the optional science lab coordinator at Idlewild. Every kindergarten through fifth grade student spends time in her classroom at least every other week. And some of those same kids meet weekly for a Garden Club. In Erin’s classroom and in their garden areas outside, students learn about everything from the life cycle of plants to composting to how to grow their own food, both indoors and outdoors.
In Erin’s indoor classroom, a space is set up near the windows for growing plants hydroponically. A small box holds bags of seeds students have collected and dried from their gardens. Peek inside one plastic bin, and you’ll find it alive with worms; it’s a vermicomposting bin donated by an Idlewild parent.
“The parent came and helped us set it up and see what it’s all about. It’s basically feeding scraps to worms, which then convert it to soil,” says Erin. Students and teachers bring scraps from their own kitchens to add to the bin. At the end of last school year, Erin and her students added soil from the bin to the outside garden areas. And they made and applied “worm tea,” a kind of natural liquid fertilizer made by steeping the vermicompost in water.
Idlewild’s outside space includes one main large raised garden area with several smaller gardens tucked into other spaces. Some gardens are maintained by the Garden Club, while students are free to work in other gardens on their own time.
“The garden is where my heart is,” says Erin.
Last year first and second graders completed a soil study, learning what lives in soil and what makes good soil. Students have dissected seeds to see each part of the seed and learn what it does. In the fall, students collect seeds from the year’s dying gardens to plant the following spring.
The students who founded and ran the Waste Not program have moved on to middle school, so later this year Idlewild plans to partner with Clean Memphis to reduce food waste at the school. The partnership will begin with a three-day food audit, where students and Clean Memphis staff work together to gather data about food waste at the school.
Students will learn creative ways to deal with food waste both at home and at school—from making new meals from leftover food to using lettuce stems to grow new heads of lettuce.
Brandon Ellis is the founder of Spatial Grow and one of the community members partnering with Idlewild. “We’re an immersive education company,” says Brandon. “We focus on STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] almost entirely. And we’re very ag-focused because agriculture touches every part of STEM.
At Idlewild he teaches students about indoor growing. They’ve started a hydroponic growing system and are preparing for other initiatives. “We’re getting them ready to manage the aquaponic pond they have and provide food for their school and community,” he says
Brandon shares lessons he hopes the students will take with them throughout life, like when they learn plant propagation—how to take a small piece off of a big plant to eventually grow another big plant.
“If you start with a small thing, you can have an abundance if you know what to do with it,” he says.
When he was a child, Brandon thought all food came from grocery stores. He wants the kids he teaches to know better. “Getting kids involved early on builds accountability and responsibility,” he says. “For this age group particularly, they’re open to new ideas.” He imagines the whole food industry changed as kids grow up knowing how to grow food responsibly.
Idlewild has been able to be involved in so many initiatives because of a supportive school environment and supportive community.
“The students feel like this is a place where they’re free to interact, ask questions, or set something up,” says Erin.
Parents are involved in the school—from chatting with teachers when they walk their kids to school to building a strong PTO. And having school administrators who support new initiatives has made a big difference, says Erin.
Erin has advice for other schools who are interested in starting their own food-related and sustainability-related initiatives. “First, you’ve got to find out what you’re passionate about and what your students are passionate about,” she says. “Then find an organization that can help.”
Many local organizations have funds available for in-school programs. Let them come in with their areas of expertise and then learn from them, suggests Erin. “That’s how I do it—I let other people model it and then it makes more sense,” she says. “Kids learn that way too.”
Marilla has her own advice for other students. “I would start small,” she says. “Start small and be creative.”
Erin Pauley’s Favorite Community Resources
Memphis Shelby County Schools offers resources for elementary through middle school classrooms through their Farm to School initiative.
Clean Memphis has a food waste program for students. They will also address recycling and water conservation.
Kellogg Garden Products has free, downloadable organic gardening guides.
MLGW has many different education programs on topics involving energy and conservation of water and energy.
Republic Services will send a representative to talk about recycling, along with how waste is collected, where it goes, and how it is kept out of our water supply; email Heath Lockley for more information. They also offer helpful online materials for the general public and specifically for educators.
Spatial Grow focuses on merging science and technology in ways that allow students to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables!) of their labor. They have both in-person and virtual learning models.
Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. She loves telling stories and helping other writers tell their stories.
Stacey Greenberg is the editor in chief of Edible Memphis. You can follow her at @nancy_jew.