The Bullock Garden Project is using school gardens to educate kids & feed communities
How Sonya Harris got a Principal and HGTV Star on board to help teachers create community gardens across the country
“I think gardens should be just a norm in schools — just as you have reading and writing and math, you should also have gardening.”– Sonya Harris
Sonya Harris believes in the power of gardening.
Harris got her start teaching special education, where she initiated a garden in her school.
It inspired her to found the Bullock Garden Project in Glassboro, New Jersey to help teachers start their own community gardens and distribute fresh food to local Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Harris sat down with Green Philly to tell us about her work and experience as a Black woman in the environmental sector.
Yard Crashers save the day
As an educator, Harris often noticed that her students struggled to learn topics such as counting and measurement. The lessons were designed to teach children skills that would be useful in adult life, but when presented in the classroom, they were missing the necessary context to help the students understand them. “For first graders, there was nothing real-life where these kids could make that translation,” she says. Frustrated with the format of traditional lesson plans, Harris decided to look for alternative ideas to help make her lessons more engaging.
Eventually, Harris and her coworkers stumbled upon the idea of starting a garden and using it to apply the concepts in their lessons. After receiving the garden go-ahead from her principal, she reached out to Ahmed Hassan, former host of HGTV’s Yard Crashers. On the show, Hassan and his team of landscapers would surprise homeowners with upgrades to their backyards. As a big fan, Harris thought bringing in Hassan would help raise excitement about the garden from students and community members.
“I just kind of thought, let’s do this yard crasher style. Let’s just have a bunch of superstars from the cultural green industry descend on Glassboro,” said Harris.
Hassan agreed, and together they transformed the schoolyard into a flourishing garden. Landscapers and horticulturalists came from around the country to help plant and teach gardening lessons. Donations flooded in, and volunteers flocked in from around New Jersey. “It really became this giant community project, where I would put on Instagram, ‘Hey, Ms. Harris is going to be in the garden’. And Saturday from nine to noon, families would descend on the garden and they would come and help.”
The Bullock Garden Project’s beginnings
After the initial boost of publicity from Hassan’s visit, Harris received a number of inquiries from teachers at other schools looking to start their own gardens. “I decided I was going to start a nonprofit, because it was going to be so much easier for me to help other teachers if they can just receive one bulk donation.”
With that, the Bullock Garden Project (BGP) was born. Harris and her team began working tirelessly to field requests, gathering materials, raising funds, and teaching gardening workshops to all who asked for help. “We had 22 applicants from across the country. People who wanted to grow school gardens. And we helped every single one.”
In 2019, Harris quit teaching to work full time at BGP. Since then, she and the rest of the BGP team have been working to expand the organization’s outreach. One of their major priorities has been reducing food waste and increasing access to fresh, healthy food in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Harris recalls witnessing a student bring a lunch box full of junk food to school. “I remember one day saying to this little girl, ‘no honey, go get your lunch, not your snack’. And she went, well, this is my lunch. And my teaching partner and I were just heartbroken.”
Harris sees BGP’s school gardening program as a way to directly ensure access to fresh produce for low-income students. “We’re feeding people because we have to make sure that our kids are not forced to bring junk for lunch.”
Life as a Black woman in the green industry
After retiring from teaching to focus on the Bullock Garden Project, Harris delved further into the gardening world, going to Rutgers University to earn her master gardener certification. However, she quickly noticed how rare it was to meet other Black women in the industry. “Even in that class, I was one of four (Black women) and I think we had 55 in our class. I’ve been to horticultural events, green industry events, where either I am the only person of color, the only Black person, or the only Black woman.”
At the same time, Harris has felt welcomed by other industry professionals who recognize the need for the wisdom and perspectives of people of color. “The people I’ve come across are so aware that there is a cultural gap in the green industry. I’ve had people say to me, ‘you don’t realize you’re a key. We know that there is racial disparity in the green industry and we want to fix it.’”
Harris believes it’s important to teach children to garden in order to help them reclaim their traumatic history–and that it’s especially beneficial for Black, indigenous, and children of color, to be taught by those who share their background and experiences. “We share that generational trauma. We share the history of slavery, while we may not all share the same journey. We all have that common thread….How can we now come together and work this land to help improve all of our lives?”
Harris isn’t just teaching children to garden — she is helping them work through trauma and learn to love nature and nutrition. “I saw kids who were experiencing trauma find solace in a garden. I think that there’s so many things that can be done as a Black woman who took this leap into this world. I hope that I can inspire other children of color, not just Black and Brown, but you know, whoever you are.”
So Fresh, So Glean
Recently, the Bullock Garden Project received a grant from the EPA to start a new program, diverting food waste back into the kitchens of those needing access to fresh food. The program, So Fresh, So Glean, will allow them to partner with farms, grocery stores, and food pantries to distribute produce into the hands of people living in Philadelphia’s driest food deserts.
“We want to tie into that goal of reducing food waste because we know that food waste adds methane into the environment. And the amount of waste the United States produces is astronomical. We have to feed families….No child should go to bed hungry.”
In particular, BGP has been working closely with partners in Kensington. Though many of their operations were temporarily halted due to the pandemic, the grant has allowed them to continue working in Kensington and other neighborhoods to ensure food access. “COVID hit, but that passion for feeding people in need, my brothers and sisters across the river, didn’t go away. So when we learned about this grant, we learned that we can go to farms, we can get food that we glean and we can make sure it gets into the hands of people in Philadelphia. We found that we could help on a bigger scale with some additional help from the EPA.
How can I help?
Harris’s advice to readers? “When you are putting something into the ground, put in double — one for you and one for someone else. If you can give someone just a tomato, you’re giving them time, love and energy. So you are passing on that positivity. Your one action has a ripple effect. Be the drop in the pond, cause the ripple.”
If you can’t make it out to New Jersey, don’t worry — The Bullock Garden Project accepts help from volunteers from around the country. Visit their website or follow their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more information on the organization and how you can help.
Cover image courtesy: Sonya Harris