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Teachers get their hands dirty in nonprofit partnership

Neighbors Nourishing Communities provides grow stations to MITCH

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - MITCH teachers dig into dirt during a gardening workshop put on by Neighbors Nourishing Communities.At MITCH Charter School last Friday, several teachers stayed after school for some hands-on learning of their own.

MITCH is partnering this year with Neighbors Nourishing Communities, a Tualatin-based nonprofit group that shares gardening tips, supplies and seeds with prospective vegetable-growers in exchange for a share of their produce.

The nonprofit recently gave four homemade “germination stations” — little more than wheeled kitchen racks outfitted with grow lights, potting trays and other supplies, said Chad Darby, the group's founder — to the charter school, which is affiliated with the Tigard-Tualatin School District.

On Friday, Darby and gardener Caitlin Blood showed the school staff how to work with them.

“You can put a lot of seeds in the ground, throw some water in them and put them in a sunny window and have relatively good success," Darby said. "With this setup, you'll be able to have controlled conditions. You'll be able to have germination rates that are very, very high, very consistent conditions, so that if you want to do experiments, you can.”

Duncan Ketel, who teaches agriculture and physical education at MITCH — fittingly, an acronym for “Multi-sensory Instruction Teaching Children Hands-on” — said the mobile germination stations have already been divided up between class levels at the school. Students have grown plants in class before, he said, but the new stations will allow them to do more.

“With the old grow station, it worked, but with the size, you can quadruple (the) output of what you're growing,” said Ketel, his hands covered in a soil mixture teachers were using Friday to plant spinach and cat grass seeds. “So then kids can take home one or two plants, or in kindergarten, they can grow three or four different varieties of something instead of just, you know, doing basil. So it gives them a bit more variety, a deeper understanding of agriculture.”

While the germination stations will provide a learning experience for students, Ketel said MITCH's top priority with them will be growing for Neighbors Nourishing Communities.

The business model behind Neighbors Nourishing Communities is a simple one, Darby said. The nonprofit trades seeds and other gardening startup support to home gardeners in Tualatin for a promise of at least 20 percent of the produce grown. That produce is then distributed to low-income families, who often struggle to get proper nutrition, he said.

“Whether they grow one plant or they grow an acre, we'll make sure that they get the plants and seeds they need if they give us 20 percent of their produce back,” he said.

Blood and Darby said even small contributions can make a difference.

“If you only donated one tomato, it's one tomato that somebody didn't have,” Darby said. “Everything helps.”

Melissa Meyer, the school's executive director and principal, said the partnership between MITCH and Neighbors Nourishing Communities has been in the works for more than a year. She said the germination stations were given to the school free of charge.

“We're very excited,” she said of the partnership.

The collaboration with MITCH is Neighbors Nourishing Communities' first foray into partnering directly with schools, according to Darby.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Chad Darby of Neighbors Nourishing Communities gives a presentation to MITCH School teachers about gardening indoors.