Publication Date

January 2009

Journal or Book Title

Practicing Anthropology


In the springtime, fifth grade students at the Williamsburg Elementary School in rural Western Massachusetts ask to snack on sorrel and chives from the school garden, between planting potatoes and building a shade structure for their outdoor classroom. They are members of the first cohort of the curriculum-integrated program initiated by Fertile Ground, a grassroots organization in western Massachusetts. The children’s delight in the fresh greens they have grown marks a national phenomenon: the farm-to-school movement. With limited resources, parents, teachers, students, administrators, and community activists are developing inroads to better school food and food education, by constructing school teaching gardens, visiting neighboring farms, engaging in classroom cooking projects and community harvest meals, and providing lasting farm and cafeteria procurement connections. This wave of national activism has arisen in response to the alarming diet-based childhood health crisis, and a desire for hands on experiences that connect young people to the land, food, history, their community – and themselves.

During Spring 2008, Fertile Ground underwent a participatory evaluation project, in which fifth grade students assessed the value of inquiry-based, hands-on learning in the school garden through the Photovoice method. Photovoice research places cameras in the hands of community members so that they themselves document and discuss their concerns and perspectives (Wang, et al., 1996). The research was designed to gain insight about the students’ knowledge of food, nutrition, and community food systems, having participated in six years of hands-on programming in the school garden. The research also aimed to illuminate the students’ impressions of leadership, fellowship, care for the land and community that have arisen out of Fertile Ground farm-to-school programs.

The Photovoice study was designed by Fertile Ground Director Catherine Sands, undergraduate anthropology intern Lee Ellen Reed, and Maggie Shar, Fertile Ground program coordinator and instructor. Professor Krista Harper supported the project with her expertise in research methods and with equipment from her newly established Photovoice Research Lab at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This article outlines the context of school garden learning programs and its relevance today, delineates the methodology of our research, its assets and limitations, and offers an example of youth-driven, participatory Photovoice research and evaluation for farm-to-school programs.