Meet the Alum Who Believes in the Power of Growing Food
July 12, 2021
Adam Zmick is one of the founders of Gardeneers. Gardeneers was initiated after its founders witnessed the impact of food insecurity at the schools where they taught. They view it as social and racial justice work in the form of school garden education and believe that the food inequity we see in our city, and across the country, is deeply rooted in systemic racism. Adam and the Gardeneers believe that growing one’s own food is a form of power, and a powerful way to support one’s own community. Adam is an alum of Teach For America (St. Louis, ‘05) and Education Pioneers. He also has a B.S. in General Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.
What motivates you to work towards making an impact towards educational equity?
I see it as an issue of survival, for my own family and for our species as a whole. The systems of life that make it possible to survive on this pale blue dot are under attack and I think that our only hope of survival is to activate the full potential of our young people.
It’s been more than 15 years since my first day as a high school science teacher and the longer I have served as an educator, the more convinced I become of the amazing potential of the next generation. They are creative and cooperative, generous and kind, and they have what it takes to become the scientists, farmers, activists, artists, and teachers that we need to survive this mess.
A just and equitable education system would have to be at the core of any thriving society.
Tell us about Gardeneers. How did your experience in education lead you to found Gardeneers?
Gardeneers is a nonprofit organization that sustains school garden programs, focusing our resources toward neighborhoods and communities are being injusticed by food apartheid. Our small team of garden educators rotates among our partner schools on a weekly basis, bringing students out into the garden to learn about nutrition, community, and the environment. There is a growing body of research confirming a wide range of benefits from school gardens, including better health, behavior, and grades.
My experience in the classroom through Teach For America was one of the huge inspirations that led me to co-found Gardeneers. I cannot tell you how many times my students told me that they wanted to go outside, that they wanted to learn by doing, and that they wanted to learn about practical things that made a difference in their lives. They often asked me where they could get healthy food (when neither the school nor nearby stores had healthy options). It took years before I saw school gardens at the intersection of my students’ voices. However, ever since I first used a garden as a classroom, I have been convinced that every student needs the opportunity to learn by growing.
What are some of the most pressing or important issues affecting the Greater-Chicago Northwest Indiana community today?
I believe that racial justice is the most important issue facing us today. I wish I had realized this earlier, but I see now how this issue is at the crux of so many others. I don’t see how we can move forward on health, the environment, the economy, education, or anything else unless we address racial justice first.
“I don’t see how we can move forward on health, the environment, the economy, education, or anything else unless we address racial justice first.”
You have been involved in the Chicago educational landscape throughout your career; what have you seen evolve and change? What has stayed the same? What about these things excites you?
From the curriculum to the calendar, our educational system was designed to give students a standard set of skills to work factory jobs and go back and work the family farm during the summer. Sadly, both the factory jobs and family farms are largely gone now. Even worse, from what I’ve seen throughout my career, is that our schools have not adapted - at least not nearly enough.
That being said, I see a lot of hopeful signs. A few years ago, I would have pointed to Michelle Obama and her leadership towards getting kids eating healthy, gardening, and being physically active as the biggest sign of an evolution in the right direction. While that is still incredibly important and meaningful, to me, it has been overshadowed by the power of recent youth-led movements. On the important issues of racial justice and climate change, young people are leading the way, demanding a future in which everyone gets the opportunity to not just survive, but thrive. That’s incredibly exciting.
What advice would you give to community members who are seeking to grow their leadership and impact in education and the Greater-Chicago Northwest Indiana Community?
First and foremost, I’d say to commit to continuously learning and growing as a person. Before one can lead others, one must first be able to lead oneself. This can be different things to different people but one thing every educational leader needs to do is grow in their practice of anti-racism. If you want to be a leader in education, you need to make a lifelong commitment to learn about the ugly history of racial injustice and to use whatever power you have to help right those wrongs.
My only other advice would be to listen to and amplify the voices of students and families.
What do you think we can do to diversify the teacher leadership pipelines in our region so that more students have teachers that are representative of the diversity of this region?
For starters, we need to pay teachers more. A lot more. There isn’t a more important role in our society than a teacher. If we want to make it a popular job that attracts top talent, we need to put our money where our mouth is.
Furthermore, if we want to get serious about our teacher leadership reflecting the diversity of our region, we need reparations. It's no coincidence that the communities that are under-represented in teaching leadership are the same communities that have endured hundreds of years of oppression and injustice. It takes resources to develop teaching leadership, so we can't be surprised that we find echoes of a massive difference in generational wealth in our teacher leadership pipelines.
We are now over a year into this pandemic, how has the last year changed the way you view your work, your mission, and the impact you want to make?
In a lot of ways, the pandemic highlighted the importance of this work. At the beginning of the pandemic, we learned about how obesity and diabetes were deadly comorbidities to COVID. As I watched the death toll rise, I couldn't help but to wonder: how many lives could have been saved if garden education had already been the standard for every student?
Now that most Americans have been vaccinated and we are returning to in-person education, we've had so many inquiries from schools interested in adding a garden program. The experiential, get-your-hands-dirty learning that is at the core of what we do is also kind of thing we lost out on while we stayed home to stay safe.
While the pandemic has been a huge challenge financially for Gardeneers, it has also made the importance of our mission even more apparent. Going back to how things were before isn't good enough.
“The experiential, get-your-hands-dirty learning that is at the core of what we do is also kind of thing we lost out on while we stayed home to stay safe [during COVID].”
What about your work with Gardeneers brings you joy? How can others get involved?
I still get to lead a program as a garden educator and it brings me so much joy. As important as the positive outcomes of our program are, I hope I always want to keep doing it because it stays fun. After all, you do learn more when you are having fun.
In terms of how others can get involved, there are lots of options. For starters, you can sign up to volunteer with garden work or donate to our work by going to our website. We host corporate groups for volunteer events, so please reach out if you are interested in that. We also have our annual gala coming up soon, so please buy a ticket or become a sponsor. Also, committing to a regular monthly donation is another great way to support our work.
Ten years from now, what is something you would want people to remember about your work in education, with students, and with Gardeneers?
Ten years from now, I hope we are looking back at a decade of rapid change for the better. I hope that the change comes with the same speed that digital streaming replaced video rental stores. I hope we look back on today’s education and food systems and wonder with disbelief why we ever did things the way we do now, and I hope Gardeneers can be one small part of making that happen.