by Michael Tomlin-Crutchfield

The beauty in gardening isn’t in the harvest, but in the process of watching a seed grow from a sprout to blooming into a flower, and ultimately, producing the fruit of the gardener’s labor.

Growing up on a farm 30 minutes from the factory floors of Detroit, Betti Wiggins, nutritional officer of Houston Schools Independent District, gained an appreciation for a different set of plants. However, it was in the garden of her first home in Detroit, that inspired her to bring her passion to the classroom.

“My next-door neighbor’s grandson saw me planting seeds in my garden and came over to ask me what I was doing. I told him I was planting a watermelon,” said Wiggins. “He said ‘you’ve got it wrong,’ watermelons don’t come out of the ground – they come from Kroger. That’s when I knew that we had a problem in our schools and I was determined to change that.”

After graduating from Wayne State University and a career in healthcare that allowed her to live and work in Sierra Leone, she returned to Detroit in 2008 to work in child nutrition.

“I came back home to a city that was stricken with issues. I thought to myself, how could I help rebuild a city where 65% of its land was covered with vacant land.”

Wiggins saw an opportunity to connect STEM education in the classroom to gardening and helped establish the Detroit School Garden Collaborative. The collaborative is the largest school garden program in the nation and runs over 80 gardens including a two-acre farm.

“I looked at our children, who were struggling in classrooms focused on high-stakes testing and saw gardening and agriculture as a tool improve their performance and teach them food literacy,” said Wiggins. “We created a program that not only exposed students to agriculture, but side aside time for ACT/SAT prep, financial literacy training and college tours. They also gained an appreciation for their food and began to think critically about where it came from.”

The program which provided opportunities for college bound high school students to return as program supervisors, college, also taught parents about the importance of good food and created a pathway for them to earn an education.

“Getting parents to not just care, but be involved in the education of their children is the hardest part,” said Wiggins. “We created a program for parents to learn about gardening and produce and earn a GED at the same time. We also developed employment opportunities with the collaborative - for some that was their first work experience. Changing the view of education in the household leads to a change in the. A home that values education is critical to a child’s success.”

Wiggins, who is now based in Houston, found herself in district that despite having more resources than Detroit, is plagued with similar issues in student performance.

“What students eat and what they don’t eat, plays a major factor in their ability to learn,” said Wiggins. “I’ve seen students in Detroit and Houston, who’ve come to school hungry and malnourished turn their grades and behavior around by fueling their bodies and minds with the right things. We’ve seen trends in districts where students have their top participation on Monday’s and Friday’s because they are eager to eat coming to school from the weekend and fueling up before they go home. All of this is important – students who are hungry can’t learn, but students who are absent, from being sick or suspended because of behavior can’t learn anything.”

In addition to proper nutrition, Wiggins has found a way to teaching students empathy and diversity and inclusion through food literacy.

“I started a program in our gardens in Detroit that I’ve brought to Houston, that allows students to grow heirloom tomatoes, carrots and peppers so that they can see that regardless of how the plants bloom, in different colors, tastes and shapes, they all have value and they’re all the same. I’ve seen students go through the program for years, go onto become valedictorians of their class and go onto college,” said Wiggins.

“My goal is increase the graduation rate in Houston through the introduction of food literacy. We’re educating students who are from poor communities and preparing them for an economy that was much different than the one that many educators today knew. We need to engage them differently and bring fun into the classroom. I think allowing children to watch something grow, to understand their roles in cultivating something from beginning to end instills a sense of responsibility, empathy and ultimately critical thinking; something I believe is needed to succeed in life.”