As a teacher at an alternative high school in north Milwaukee, Jennifer Parr is working to bring different approaches to her science and health classes. She applied to the Apples4Ed program with ideas for more engaging ways to educate and motivate students to eat healthier and share healthier habits with their families. Parr’s school, NOVA (Northwest Opportunities Vocational Academy), was recently awarded one of the 2019 A4E $4,000 grants to support building a garden, greenhouse and aquaponic system that will provide a co-curricular experience for students and allow them to share nutritious foods with their families and community.

NOVA high school serves 115 at-risk alternative education students in grades 9 through 12. It’s located on the second floor above a COA Youth & Family Center, which focuses on early childhood development, youth development and community development. Parr shares that many NOVA students are also parents, and many are able to find childcare through COA.

In many ways, Milwaukee is still one of the most segregated cities in the country, and this region of the city is deeply impacted by that segregation and generational poverty. Located near the site of the 2016 Milwaukee Riots in Sherman Park, NOVA’s zip code has the highest rate of incarceration for males across the country. The nearest grocery store is approximately 2.5 miles away, so many students often rely on nearby convenience stores for food for themselves and their families. Approximately 98 percent of NOVA students are African American; 1 percent are Native American and 1 percent are Hispanic. Parr worries that limited access to fresh foods and the unhealthy habits that causes could lead to a higher risk of long-term health risks for her students, like type 2 diabetes.

Limited access to proper nutrition means that many students have had little to no dietary education they can practice in real life. “Our kids face so much trauma and come in hungry,” says Parr. “Spending $5.00 on a soda at the store doesn’t help any of that. That access [to fresh fruits and vegetables] is so negligible—it’s almost nonexistent.” Though there is a food pantry and a Feeding America truck that visits the community center regularly, there is still a lack of regular access to fresh fruits and vegetables, as many of those services offer foods heavy in starch and preservatives. Students have limited options beyond sugary beverages and fried foods to keep them going throughout the day, which makes concentrating in class incredibly challenging. “By the afternoon, our students are often exhausted,” says Parr.

The school is focusing on health initiatives to promote wellbeing, while simultaneously offering students the opportunities to bring new knowledge back home, so that it can be reinforced throughout their families and community.

“We also have so many generations living together. If you don’t know what an apple is, you won’t give one to your kid. We want them to be able to pass that knowledge onto others at home to help alleviate some of the health issues,” Parr observes. The school will start their health initiatives by teaching the kids to plant salad ingredients and then offering it to them during lunch time. As many students aren’t accustomed to these types of ingredients in their diets, Parr wants to help students learn how to incorporate fruits and veggies in ways that interest them. “Sometimes they ask me to identify some fruits or vegetables like asparagus. [They have] aversions to vegetables because they haven’t been exposed to tasty preparations; [they just] need to know how to cook them and grow them in ways that are delicious and accessible.”

With this new grant, NOVA will be able build a garden. “We partnered with a garden design software company and did a contest to design the new garden. It will be an outdoor learning space. We’re excited to use some space with the community center below us. We have six classrooms and a library, so having additional space nearby to take kids out of the same four walls is a fantastic feeling,” says Parr.

Parr shared that many students have struggled to master coursework in the past, but by connecting the academic concepts with a hands-on approach, Parr believes the students will be more apt to learn and enjoy themselves. “Being able to be in a new environment can help them learn something in a new way when they haven’t been able to master it in the past—rather than sitting through chemistry again.”  NOVA will be providing course credits for students taking a hybrid science class that covers aquaponics and horticulture. Parr is excited that students will be able to learn while simultaneously “seeing the fruits of their labor.”

NOVA and Parr are not alone in their mission for better health and new approaches to helping alternative education students succeed. “We were fortunate to have our mayor come to the Apples4Ed ceremony. He’s working on fruit and vegetable access programs in north Milwaukee, ” says Parr. Other community-driven programs, like those offered by 414 Life, a violence prevention organization, teach gardening skills to young men at the community center.

One of the outcomes Parr hopes for with this project is that students will be able to pass healthy habits and new skills on to their community members and families. “We’d really love to have our NOVA families work with us and participate,” she says.

Along with the support from community organizations and the local government, Parr will be using gardening and canning techniques she learned from her grandmother. Parr’s grandmother, who is now 103, is an accomplished horticulturist and has been a passionate gardener and canner for most of her life. She once received a letter acknowledging her work in community gardening from Lady Bird Johnson. Parr is excited to share these techniques that she has learned from her grandmother with the students at NOVA in the hopes that they will be able to share them with their families, too. It is just one way to help overcome the challenges of finding fresh foods nearby.

Many NOVA students are excited to grow pumpkins, corn, potatoes and familiar fruits like apples and peaches. Others are excited to learn about the chemistry behind canning and pickling. “I have a student who does not believe that cucumbers make pickles,” Parr shares. “It will be cool to see that process in action. There’re these things that we think are so common that everyone has as background knowledge in, but it’s not.” She is optimistic about a new way of learning and creating resources that can help these students and their families grow.

“We’ll make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of fun. I’ll get a lot of ‘no way’ and that’s fun too,” says Parr.