Anne M. Zachry, MA, has worked as a child and family advocate in the public education arena since 1991 and as a paralegal in education-related litigation since 2005. She also holds a master's degree in educational psychology with a specific emphasis on human development across the lifespan, effective instructional practices, the science of learning, and educational program evaluation.
About a year ago, I encountered my friend, Avanish, on Facebook through mutual online friends in the organic gardening realm of the web. We both had a common interest in sustainable living and our online conversations started around Learn & Grow.
At about that same time, the virtual assistant I’d had could no longer continue in the position and I needed someone to replace him. Avanish ended up taking on that responsibility and he and I began speaking almost every weekday for anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours a day from that point forward. He’s learned my special education advocacy and intervention caseload and helps me stay on top of all my responsibilities, including running my calendar, all from his smartphone in Gwalior, MP, India. I’m located in Southern California, USA. Technology is amazing.
But, virtual assistant awesomeness aside, my collaboration with Avanish started with Learn & Grow and the intent was always for him to build his own container garden in Gwalior. Sourcing the tools and parts turned out to be a challenge, but we ultimately figured out that we could order everything through Amazon. The PVC, soil, and plants were locally purchased. And, now, Avanish has started his self-watering container garden in Gwalior using the same methods we use in our Learn & Grow test garden here in Southern California!
Here is Avanish’s photo story of building out his first two containers to start his garden:
This is an exciting moment for us. The Learn & Grow Educational Series started in 2013 in my little apartment patio/yard with a few self-watering containers that served as our test garden. Today, the original garden has approximately 40 containers and a chicken coop and pens that hold five laying hens. We are using social media marketing methods to push instruction on how to have food security and food independence in these uncertain times, in a way that can be scaled according to each person’s available space and resources.
Our audience has become global. We get the most fascinating stories and inquiries about food security, gardening methods, local fruits and vegetables, and worries about the future of food availability from people around the world through our social media, primarily Facebook and Instagram. We are thrilled to have our methods replicated in a country where access to food is a serious concern for millions of people and growing their own food using our methods could be one of many tools used to combat hunger and poverty in India.
If you would like to donate to KPS4Parents to help fund our international efforts through our Learn & Grow Educational Series, please click on the Donate button below.
KPS4Parents is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization; discuss with your tax advisor whether your donations to KPS4Parents are tax-deductible.
UPDATE: Since this article was originally posted, our dwarf banana tree has gotten approximately 3 feet/1 metre tall. Scroll to the bottom to see a more current image of it.
Recently, I wrote about the recent developments in Venezuela and its current food shortage crisis. In response to the growing demand for information about growing food using our self-watering container methods, I also added a survey to the Learn & Grow website for a few days asking our visitors from Venezuela to tell us about their challenges with growing their own food.
The feedback we received was powerful. In addition to technical questions about self-watering containers and concerns over access to materials, we also got a lot of questions about how to grow specific types of plants, which is what prompted today’s article. Somebody wanted to know about growing bananas.
It had never occurred to me to find out if one could grow bananas in the type of containers we use, so I went on a quest and found that there are edible dwarf banana plants that can be grown in fairly large pots on patios. They need adequate draining so their roots don’t rot, potassium rich soil that leans to the acidic side, but not too acidic, and lots of hot sun, so they are best suited for tropical and subtropical climates.
I’m located in Southern California. The neighbors have a banana tree that is slowly taking down the fence between our houses because it grows so prolifically. Clearly, bananas like our climate.
My concern was the amount of root space a banana tree, even a dwarf variety, might need. I figured, there’s only one way to find out, so Operation Dwarf Banana was officially launched. I found a dwarf banana variety for $5.99 on Amazon.com and it was shipped to me in days.
I went shopping and got a bag of small lava rocks to mix into the potting soil so there would be sufficient drainage, as well as the materials to build out a new self-watering container. There is no room in any of the other containers in our test garden, and I expect the plant to need as much of the root space as possible, so I had to give it a brand new home.
Holes cut for the drain & pipe
Holes drilled for drainage
Weep hole drilled
I built out the container. Then, I put a thin layer of lava rock gravel over the bottom of the upper growing chamber and a little in the inverted atrium drain that serves as the container’s wicking basket.
I poured regular organic potting soil into the upper growing chamber on top of the layer of gravel, but didn’t fill it all the way up. Then I added a little more gravel and then some more potting soil, and stirred them together with my hands so that the gravel was fairly evenly distributed throughout the soil.
After that, I planted our little baby banana tree in the container, placed it on the deck, and filled the reservoir with water. I also moistened the top of the soil to help get the wicking action going so water will easily percolate up from the lower reservoir of water to keep supplying the roots of the plant with water.
Bananas are rumored to be very thirsty and require daily watering if in traditional patio containers. I’m curious to see what its water consumption will be in the self-watering container. The reservoir only holds about a gallon-and-a-half of water, so this little banana plant may still require daily watering.
Right now, this is totally an experiment. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, and having a food source rich in potassium like bananas growing in a family or community garden is never a bad idea, if it can be done, so it’s worth it to figure out what can be done.
You can follow the progress of our little banana tree on our social media, along with the rest of the Learn & Grow test garden here in Southern California. We are working with others around the world and expect to have a Learn & Grow test garden in India before the end of this year, which will also be exciting to follow.
You can follow the progress of the plants in our So Cal test garden on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and/or Pinterest. Our biggest collection of gardening tips can be found on Pinterest, as well. Wish us luck with Operation Dwarf Banana! We hope to have a new food crop that we can teach other people to grow.
This last week has been a whirlwind of activity for KPS4Parents and its Learn & Grow Educational Series. While we were working with students and developing instructional content for children, the political and economic situation in Venezuela took an absolute turn for the worst.
Venezuela is the first internet-connected population of hungry and starving people. Professionals living in high rise apartments with high speed internet are panicked over the absolute lack of food available in the country and desperately trying to figure out how they can grow their own food. Today is also Independence Day in the United States, so the concept of “independence” has been heavy on my mind in light of the situation in Venezuela.
Our Learn & Grow Educational Series was discovered by internet users in Venezuela just over a week ago and, once we realized we had an audience there, we started pushing Facebook ads in Venezuela promoting our gardening and food education program based on using self-watering containers made from recycled plastic buckets and inexpensive hardware. The response to our modest Facebook ad investment has been overwhelming and humbling.
The questions we’ve been getting have been about some of the most basic concepts of gardening, like how seeds work. This situation has made it frighteningly clear what the consequences are when people have not been educated about growing their own food. The thanks we’ve been receiving from grateful Facebook fans and website visitors has been very emotionally moving.
The problem, it appears, is that Venezuela was an oil-rich country for a very long time and the oil revenues subsidized the commercial food supply. People got away from growing their own food and relied on the grocery stores that were stocked with packaged foods, much of which was shipped in from outside the country. Then, the economy collapsed. Oil prices dropped and Venezuela was no longer generating the revenues it once did. The government couldn’t afford to subsidize the commercial food supply, so it stopped. And, now the stores are empty.
The Venezuelan government is now only in business for four mornings a week and the power is cut off for three hours each day everywhere but Caracas, the capital, to save money. Some people have resorted to attacking delivery trucks to steal their food cargoes. People with the money to do so have been grocery shopping on Amazon.com and having their food FedExed to them. The middle class and low-income households have not been so lucky.
Help us teach people everywhere how to grow food anywhere.
There has never been a hunger situation quite like this one and Learn & Grow is in the unique position to do something that helps put the power back into the hands of the people to feed themselves. Granted, if they start now, they’re going to still have some lean months ahead of them before their plants come to bear, but greens and carrots can be ready to pick in a couple of months, as can cucumbers and tomatoes, if started right now. Potatoes can be grown year-round, if the soil is kept warm enough during cool weather, as can onions.
People with small spaces available for growing can collaborate with neighbors in similar circumstances to create growing cooperatives. This may be a good solution for apartment and condominium dwellers, for example, who only have limited balcony space for each home, but collectively have many balconies on which many self-watering containers could be planted.
I sincerely hope that the people in Venezuela who are building their own container gardens are also teaching their neighbors how to do so, as well. Not everybody there is still internet-connected. As the economy continues to tank, I’m not sure how long anybody there will remain connected, so we’re doing our best to push our instructional content for building the self-watering containers and starting gardens while the connection remains.
Right now, the only aid we have any ability to deliver is internet-based instruction, which may not last much longer. This, too, is unprecedented. Rather than dropping food aid from American airplanes, we’re dropping Facebook ads that push our instructional content about how to grow food in front of the people who need it the most. We’re using targeted social media marketing to educate a starving population on a way to feed itself. We are acutely aware that this is no small thing. We are awestruck at finding ourselves in the middle of this situation. It’s serendipity, it seems.
I have to be honest. It was doomsday thinking along the lines of what is now happening in Venezuela that compelled me to create Learn & Grow when I was working on my graduate degree and had to create an educational product for a class. At the time, and those close to me will confirm I’ve said this more than once, my concern was that people in the United States were not worried about enough of the most important things when it comes to freedom. While the Constitution gives us the right to bear arms to protect ourselves from government take-over, the government doesn’t have enough gun-toting soldiers to kick in the door of every American home and take us over that way.
The only way to put every American at the business end of a gun is if Americans are turned on each other with the guns they have the right to bear, and the easiest way to do that is to cut off the commercial food supply. The next thing you know, BMW-driving suburbanites are shooting each other in the streets over cans of creamed corn; hypothetically speaking, anyway. This was my fear, so I created Learn & Grow to teach kids how to grow their own food, then expanded the instruction to include families and communities once I realized how desperately the adult population needed the knowledge, as well.
So, now, here we now have Venezuela going through pretty much the very horror I was envisioning and I’m just heartbroken and mortified. There is no satisfaction in being right about something like the collapse of the commercial food supply in a developed country and the effects such a collapse has on a population. Desperation, if not savagery, has escalated in Venezuela. The crime is rampant. The law enforcement is grossly inadequate and without the resources to do much of anything.
This isn’t me being morbid about the future, anymore. This is reality for millions of people who didn’t see it coming and are now having to deal with the absence of a commercial food supply and nothing else immediately available to take its place.
This is also a severe wake-up call for the rest of the world. Dependence upon a commercial food supply is dangerous to the long-term survival of populations. Creating a dependence upon a commercial food supply gives those controlling the food supply control over the people.
Knowing basic survival skills is an important part of being a human being no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes and robbing people of that knowledge robs them of their independence. No entity should have that kind of control over entire populations of people. There is a significant lesson to be learned, here, and the rest of the world would do itself well to pay attention.
The preventive step is for people who are not already going through economic crises to start their own gardens of whatever type makes the most sense for them, our approach being just one of many. By learning to grow your own food now in whatever types of spaces you have available, you will be prepared should a crisis with the commercial food supply occur. Practice now when your mistakes won’t cost you as much and you can afford to take your time to experiment and figure things out. Learning how to grow your own food after your economy has already collapsed and the stores are already empty makes getting it right the first time a matter of health, if not life.
I created Learn & Grow with the intention of prevention. I wanted to teach kids everywhere how to grow food anywhere so that they could one day survive a food crises, come what may. I never imagined that the time would so quickly come when Learn & Grow would become a means of survival for people in crisis. And, yet, here we are.
By teaching kids how to grow their own food, we equip our future leaders with the skills they need to feed themselves and future generations, and the wisdom to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The remarkable reality of the current situation in Venezuela is that we are able to do so much for so little money, but it’s still costing us money and we’re still a non-profit. We still need donation revenue to keep our non-profit activities going, and that includes the Facebook ad dollars that are getting this important information about how to grow food anywhere to people throughout Venezuela who can use it to feed their families.
There is still time to take advantage of the remaining contact we have through the internet to provide instruction on growing food to the people there, but we need to invest in additional resources in order to be as effective as possible. We are working on Spanish-language how-to materials and videos and will promote them via Facebook ads once they are done, but there are costs associated with this work and we need donations to help cover those costs. Please help us use the tools available to us to equip people in Venezuela with a way to grow their own food no matter where they live by donating to KPS4Parents.
By no means is Venezuela the only country where the Learn & Grow Educational Series stands to be an important part of hunger prevention and relief, but this is where we can be most impactful right now. Donation revenue is needed to expand the Learn & Grow Educational Series into a program that reaches into all the places in the world where it can do the most good. Please help us teach kids, families, and communities everywhere how to grow food anywhere. Thank you for your love and support!
Help us teach people everywhere how to grow food anywhere.
Our Learn & Grow Educational Series test garden was started in June 2013 as an experiment motivated by my personal curiosity about food, people’s relationships with it, their understandings about where food comes from, food education in our schools, the nutritional values of food served to students in our public schools, the relationships between nutrition and student success, and the myriad other factors that interrelate with all of these named concerns. My brain started traveling down this path after I saw Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution and his TED video, concurrent with a Facebook friend’s irate posts about GMOs in our food supply, about which I’d known little until he’d started posting.
Mr. Oliver’s whole mission is to educate every child about food, where it comes from, and what makes it healthy or not. He is correct in presuming that our public school system has a huge role in fostering or undermining healthy eating habits in children, given that we send our kids to school for six hours a day, 5 days a week for 9-10 months out of the year and that millions of them eat lunch at school, if not both lunch and breakfast. In my sister’s children’s school district in rural Northwest Arkansas and the surrounding area, the poverty is so pervasive that breakfast and lunch continue to be served to children throughout normal school breaks, such as summer, to make sure they don’t starve.
As a child and family educational advocate, the connection between food education and learning was obvious to me and starting the garden was the first step to me really wrapping my head around the issue involved and start thinking of ways that KPS4Parents could make a positive contribution to this instructional need. My first thought was that Mr. Oliver’s campaign was dead on the money when it came to identifying the issues, but he only addresses what to do with fresh vegetables once you have them, which is to prepare and eat them. He’s a chef; that’s the knowledge he brings to the table and it is incredibly important knowledge to be shared.
Mr. Oliver’s research revealed that three generations of Americans in a row have failed to teach their children how to cook from fresh ingredients such that most people only know how to heat up processed packaged foods or eat out. His goal to equip students with a number of simple recipes that they can competently cook for themselves before they leave school is something I can enthusiastically support. He’s right; it needs to be done.
My questions, though, became, “Where are students going to get the fresh fruits and veggies, especially in food desert communities? How can you pass on the skill of cooking to people who can’t get the ingredients in the first place?”
While not all food sourcing issues can be resolved with our Learn & Grow Educational Series gardening approach, it can still become a critical part of feeding people in hunger at a relatively low cost, particularly if the buckets can be obtained for free, gently used from local restaurants and bakeries.
So, my gears started turning around those kinds of issues. Also in my mind was all the information about how to make self-watering bucket containers like I’d done and how they had been promoted for urban gardening in limited spaces, as well as how they could possibly be used with older adults who maybe couldn’t get down on their hands and knees to pull weeds in an in-ground garden, anymore. We built our first community service garden at the same property that now houses our test garden for an older gentleman who is dependent upon a wheelchair and finds that he can sit and reach into the self-watering bucket containers we built and put on his deck, where there was no way he could access plants in the yard, even in a raised bed.
In the Fall 2013 semester, I took Instructional Design and learned how to create learning products around instructional outcomes and teaching methodologies. It was a required course towards my master’s degree in educational psychology and was a mix of marketing psychology and evidence-based instruction. It was fascinating and it gave me a vehicle to develop this whole self-watering bucket container solution into an instructional product that could, for at least some children, fill the gap left by Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution with respect to sourcing the foods that kids should be taught to cook.
Fast forward to August 2014 and we could no longer keep the garden at its original location. It had to be moved. “No worries,” I said. “One of the perks of using self-watering bucket containers is that they are portable.”
In the summer of 2011, I was taking a class devoted to effective teaching practices and we had to review a journal article that related to one of the chapters in our text book. It was an academic assignment, but none of my grad school assignments were wasted on things that had nothing to do with my work. I chose writing topics that I could also apply in the field, thereby killing two research birds with one virtual stone.
The article I ended up reviewing is titled, “Social and Environmental Factors Associated with Preschoolers’ Nonsecondary Physical Activity,” and was published in the January/February 2009 in Child Development, which is a professional journal devoted, obviously, to the science of child development. At the time the study was published in 2009, 26.2% of preschoolers were at risk of being overweight, where about 60% of America’s preschool-age children participated in center-based preschool programs. Statistically, not much has changed since then.
The study was conducted in the first place due to rising concerns regarding preventable diet-and-exercise-related health disorders, particularly the scary increases we’ve been seeing in morbid obesity and diabetes among children. These are the same concerns that prompted us to develop our Learn & Grow Educational Series.
The study determined that most activities in the preschool setting are adult-initiated, occur indoors, and are primarily sedentary (94% sedentary and 1% moderate to vigorous physical activity). It also found that, when preschoolers are outdoors, child-initiated activities are 1.39 more likely to involve moderate to vigorous physical activity than adult-initiated activities and that activities that involve ball and object play are more likely to result in moderate to vigorous physical activities than other outdoor activities.
Moderate to vigorous physical activities provide more health benefits than sedentary and light physical activities. It appears that preschool-age children are innately inclined to seek moderate to vigorous physical activity, which is a function of their developmental stage. Forcing them to sit in chairs most of the day flies in the face of their current stage of development. It’s also where the patterns of a sedentary, desk-bound lifestyle begin.
The overall perspective asserted by the study is that adults in preschool settings initiate far more sedentary activities than nonsedentary activities and that the degree of moderate to vigorous activity necessary to the physical well-being of preschool students is not being sufficiently promoted by the adults in preschool settings. As we attempt to shape students’ behaviors in order to make them fit the classroom environment, we need to be asking ourselves what the long-term outcomes of these relatively short-term fixes really are.
In the interest of making our classrooms immediately manageable given how the education system is currently configured, we’re expecting even our littlest students to abandon the natural processes of their development to accommodate a dysfunctional bureaucracy and, if they can’t turn off their development and accommodate the adults, we punish them for “misbehavior” in the classroom. Punishing a young child for being wiggly is like shooting the sky in retaliation for daring to be blue. Preschoolers being wiggly is a function of their development, not an act of defiance.
I would argue that the reduction of physical activity in learning environments is not limited to preschoolers. It also may very well reflect that the adults are adjusting the activity levels for our youngest learners based on the lagging stamina of the adults rather than the developmental needs of the children.
I’m all for making life easier for the adults so long as it is not at the expense of student learning or welfare, but what is happening appears to be the creation of droves of morbidly obese, diabetic couch-potatoes, not the future leaders this nation will require. When an educational institution becomes more about accommodating the demands of the adults who work within it than the educational needs of its students, the train has gone way off the tracks.
The warning I took from this journal article, in combination with my other research and field experiences, is that if we don’t start introducing physical activity into our academic instruction from the very beginning, we are attempting to build our children’s minds at the expense of their bodies. According to data reported by Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution, diet-related health disorders now cost the United States more of its healthcare costs than do tobacco-related health disorders and are epidemic among both adults and children.
It doesn’t help our students to turn them into brilliant knowledge workers only for them to die of a heart attack or stroke by the age of 35, nor does this benefit society. Further, poorly nourished children do not learn as well, so there’s no guarantee that we’re turning our unhealthy children into brilliant anythings. It also doesn’t help to bifurcate exercise from all other normal daily activities, as though exercise should be an activity separate from everything else we do.
People avoid exercise for its own sake because it’s boring and difficult, but exercise embedded in a task that a person is otherwise motivated to do doesn’t seem like exercise at all. Lifting weights and tossing around bags of soil for a vegetable garden accomplish pretty much the same ends, exercise-wise; the difference is that gardening also produces healthy food where exercise for its own sake often just produces gym fees in addition to the health benefits of exercise. There was a time when people got their exercise naturally just by taking care of their daily business. You can’t do that sitting at a computer (or a desk in a classroom) all day.
Laying the foundation for a healthy lifestyle is best achieved during a child’s early formative years. The flip side of that is what happens to kids when the foundation that is laid promotes unhealthy rather than healthy habits, which all comes back to how the adults involved have set up a child’s immediate environments and the messages those environments send to the child about what is appropriate and acceptable behavior. Changing deeply ingrained unhealthy eating and activity habits learned early in life is usually extremely difficult.
The lack of physical activity embedded in academics can become particularly concerning for many students in special education programs where so much of their time is spent receiving specialized academic instruction and therapeutic services in small classroom settings. Parents and educators need to ensure that IEPs and 504 plans contain language that speaks to each child’s respective individualized needs regarding health and exercise, in addition to academics and any educationally necessary therapies.
An adaptive physical education (APE) assessment can be done to determine what a child’s needs for physical activity per his/her IEP should be and written into the document as measurable annual goals and services, just like for academics and therapies. To be clear, however, this is only true if the disability impacts physical performance of the kinds of physical feats one must accomplish in a general education PE class.
APE is not where you stick all the kids with disabilities who present with behavioral challenges in general ed PE class; that situation calls for behavior services where APE is for kids who can’t physically participate in regular PE, even with all kinds of supports and services, due to physical or neurological challenges. Kids on 504 plans can also get APE services and/or accommodations for PE; Section 504 just doesn’t mandate annual goals.
With preschoolers, the lack of regulations related to education in general, much less physical fitness at school, becomes a problem for many children. While 60% of our nation’s children are now participating in preschool, because participation in preschool is not part of our compulsory attendance laws for public education, public schools are not required to create preschool programs. Many, in fact, do not. Most preschoolers in the United States attend either private preschools or Head Start programs.