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Haverford College

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For some, gardening is a quiet hobby; for Abby Rosenheck ’99, however, urban agriculture has become a force for social change. Rosenheck is co-founder and executive director of Urban Sprouts, a garden-based education non-profit operating in four San Francisco schools. Committed to educating middle and high school students in San Francisco’s underserved areas, the program hopes to bolster academic performance, health and nutrition, ecoliteracy, and youth development.

“Few school gardens focus on older youth,” says Rosenheck, “and most school gardens are in elementary schools serving middle-class neighborhoods, run by volunteer parent and teacher work. We are working to professionalize garden-based education, to someday make it an integral part of public education.

“A lot of other school gardens out there are like the 'Mercedes Benz' models of gardens—they are big and beautiful, have lots of private funding, and are hard for your average school to replicate.” Eschewing this conventional model, Rosenheck and Urban Sprouts have nevertheless found success. “[Students] tell us they are eating more fruits and vegetables, they like fruits & vegetables more, and their attitudes towards food, where food comes from, farming and the environment change dramatically. Students talk a lot about youth development assets—that they have learned patience, confidence, learned to work together, and feel like they can make a difference.”

Rosenheck’s interest in agricultural education began at Haverford under the tutelage of economics professor Richard Ball and biology professor Lois Banta. “They co-taught for half of the semester a course called Agricultural Biotechnology in Developing Countries,” recalls Rosenheck, “and then the other half of the semester was Economics of [Developing] Countries with Professor Ball only. For my research project in the class I presented sustainable agriculture as an alternative to biotech, so that was the beginning of my academic learning about sustainable agriculture.”

Intrigued by the course and Banta’s home hydroponics system, Rosenheck spent the subsequent summer vacation working as a farmer in Chester County. “I had done some gardening/farm-working where I grew up,” she explains, “but that was my first experience of day after day manual farm labor. I learned that you can read about nature in books, or feel like you're communing with it by climbing a mountain, but the way people really get to intimately interact with and get to know nature is through farming.”

However, Rosenheck had to make her own way. “I had applied for some summer grant funding for students interning with environmental projects, but the college decided that working on a farm wasn't appropriate. To me, that was a huge contradiction.” Despite this setback, she forged ahead, planting the seeds of Urban Sprouts’ philosophy: “That is what is behind my work with Urban Sprouts—helping youth connect to nature in a way that is truly relevant to their lives.”

After graduation, she worked at an agricultural research institute in the Peruvian Amazon, learning about farming and farming education from local farmers. Returning to the States, she then completed a six-month program in organic farming at University of California, Santa Cruz, quickly becoming involved in gardening and teaching programs in San Francisco alongside her friend Michelle Ratcliffe, a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University. “I was her research assistant,” explains Rosenheck, “and in the process of getting to know the schools, I started volunteering with teachers, and eventually we founded Urban Sprouts with the teachers in order to fund garden-based education at these very under-served, low-resourced urban middle and high schools in San Francisco.”

A theoretical and research-based framework runs just beneath the soil of Urban Sprouts, informing the growing and adapting program. Now in its second year, the program has expanded to encompass four schools. “It’s more than just a vision and an idea,” notes Rosenheck—it’s also a business. Consequently, Rosenheck has just started an M.B.A. program in non-profit administration, as she works to develop Urban Sprouts’ board of managers. The organization has also recently received its first government grant from the California Nutrition Network. Yet despite her title of executive director, Rosenheck says that she “still does a little bit of everything,” continuing to teach actively as well as grapple with the challenges of running a non-profit.

Rosenheck admits, “It is a lot of work but incredibly rewarding to start your own project like this and then turn it into a sustainable organization…I see Urban Sprouts becoming a real leader in the field of garden-based education, and also developing the model of public-private partnership between community organizations and public schools.”

You can find out more about Rosenheck’s work with Urban Sprouts and educational gardening at the organization’s blog,

—James Weissinger '06

The path that leads to the Gardner Integrated Athletic Center and Whitehead Campus Center. The GIAC opened in 2006.

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