Just Grow It: Connecting Kids to Good Eats

— Written By Emma Jablonski and last updated by
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As a response to COVID-19 and school closures, a few Extension members established a program that would support agents in implementing hands-on learning experiences for students from counties all over the state. It began when Forsyth County’s 4-H Extension Agent, April Bowman, reached out to NC 4-H Youth Specialist, Liz Driscoll, about a National 4-H grant that supported students doing hands-on projects at home. April suggested centering the education around gardening, which led to the name, Just Grow It. Just Grow It formalized what many Agents were already doing and allowed for easier collaboration. Ultimately, the Farm to School Working Group, the NC State Horticulture Program Team, and Tes Thraves from Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) joined in to design the official educational resources and to fund 52 counties in executing Just Grow It in their community. 

Cartoon people holding vegetables

Just Grow It was specifically designed for young students who had never had the chance to garden before. The education focuses on themes like agriculture production, health and nutrition, and environmental stewardship. Project examples from the curriculum are “How to Build a Container Garden” and “Basics of Food Production from Growing to Harvesting to Eating.” Once participating counties received their share of funding, they were able to carry out the curriculum and funds however it best suited their community.

Piles of seed kits

Piles of seed kits for students and classrooms.

CEFS’ Tes Thraves proposed the main component of this COVID-19 response to involve getting seeds to kids all over the state. This is when Allison Walker, Local Foods Program Farm To School Work Group’s County Co-Chair and Randolph County’s 4-H Youth Development Extension Agent, stepped in. In 2020, Allison launched the 5th Grade Gardening Project. It resulted in 1,232 fifth graders of the Randolph County School System receiving a seed kit to start their own garden at home. The kit included all the tools necessary to garden, instructions, activity sheets, and information on pursuing a career in agriculture. By teaming up with the Randolph County Partnership For Children, she also provided 184 classroom kits for their early childhood centers. This seed kit project rolled into Just Grow It, finalizing the program’s model and purpose.

Not everyone is a rockstar like Allison in their agricultural knowledge,” complimented Liz Driscoll. For some of the newer Agents, Just Grow It has been a great resource to build up their own interest and engagement in agriculture while simultaneously reaching out and helping kids from their county build up theirs. 

Cartoon people smiling

The Just Grow It website full of educational resources for Extension Agents.

In November 2020, the Farm To School Working Group held a “Seed Kits & How To Replicate” workshop for other Extension Agents. Allison explained that they wanted to assist Agents with the logistics that might be easily overlooked. “When you have 1,200 garden kits to pack, you need lots of helping hands,” Allison said. Allison ordered seeds in bulk, which then had to be unpacked, sorted, put into bags, and packed away properly. The process required all hands on deck. Allison luckily retained a group of determined volunteers to assist.

Volunteers working diligently on packing seed kits

Volunteers working diligently on packing seed kits.

Each of the 52 counties received $265 to carry out the program, which was a limited amount if the Agent wanted to reach thousands of kids. Many of the Agents, like Allison, leveraged local support through established partnerships to execute the program on a larger scale. Southern States in Randolph County has been an instrumental partner for Allison and the County’s 4-H program. “If I need something, Frank [from Southern States] will donate it or he will give me a cut on how much it costs. He’ll work with me and make things happen.” Last year, Frank donated many of the items necessary for Allison’s projects, including the seed kit project. For the program she is doing this year, he has donated all of the soil. 

“We hope it will be a project that will stay around long after COVID-19 and one that kids can do for many years to come,” shared Allison. They plan to continue to add to it when new curriculum and program ideas are found. If Agents are interested in replicating Just Grow It, they can reach out to Liz Driscoll. There is no more funding left but Just Grow It resources and activities can be found online at any time. If students or families are interested, reach out to your local N.C. Cooperative Extension office.