A UA program that helps elementary students grow produce at school gardens is providing food and online gardening lessons to some Tucson families during the pandemic.

The pandemic has left the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program with too few students to keep it running as normal. It usually helps tend gardens and teach lessons at schools in the Tucson Unified School District with a high number of low-income students.

“The community and school garden workshop course usually carries about 50 students as interns to go and support gardens at Title I schools,” said Sallie Marston, the program’s director. “So, of course, with students unable to support the gardens and with the schoolchildren not at the schools, we’re in a situation where we’ve got gardens that are just bursting with produce and this is a big harvest time for us.”

Most of the UA students didn’t return, but those who remained felt comfortable working at the schools with proper safety precautions, she said. Students working online shifted their focus to building a curriculum to be shared with TUSD families.

“They are taking the class online, meeting once a week with the instructor for the class and then developing material for use by the schools at a later date, or even now where parents could use the material at home for homeschooling, that many of them are having to do with their kids,” Marston said.

Free produce is being offered to the community from the school gardens at Manzo, Borton, Miles (elementary schools) and Tucson High Magnet School, said Moses Thompson, the program's associate director and liaison for UA and TUSD.

The program is providing kale, chard, spinach, onions, cilantro and carrots to families. Thompson said the program recently saw 25 families at Manzo and 15 families at Tucson High.

“This is a transitional time of the garden, so we’re offloading the winter stuff getting the good produce into the hands of our families, and then in a lot of cases closing those school gardens down,” Thompson said.

They’ll set their sights on possibly restarting during the fall, although there’s no official confirmation that operations will return. Normally, the 50 students would support 25 of TUSD’s schools.

“In the best scenario, things will go back to near normal, I doubt they’ll ever go back to what they were like at the beginning of the semester,” Marston said. “And we’ll be able to support teachers who want gardens again with interns from the university who are taking the training they’ve been doing and putting it to work.”

But Thompson did acknowledge the pandemic has created a “perfect storm” for the program to deal with.

“We anticipate less support from Sallie’s students at the university. We anticipate a greater workload in those gardens and we anticipate our partner teachers being heavily tasked by the normal expectations that they carry as classroom teachers,” Thompson said.

“We know that it’s going to be really difficult fall for us. Right now, we’re planning what that might look like and how our team can best support our network of partner schools.”

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Contact Star reporter Shaq Davis at 573-4218 or sdavis@tucson.com

On Twitter: @ShaqDavis1