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Sowing Seeds of Opportunity Across Chicago

Founded by Teach For America alumni, Gardeneers is aiming to give underserved Chicago students access to gardening experiences while teaching them about healthy eating and becoming active community members.

The Chicago nonprofit Gardeneers was co-founded by May Tsupros (Chicago ’08) and Adam Zmick (St. Louis ’05)

By Theresa Mooney

April 6, 2018

In a small lot outside John Hay Community Academy in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood lives a robust fruit and vegetable patch, planted by the school’s third and fourth graders. With the guidance of TFA alumni May Tsupros (Chicago ’08) and Adam Zmick (St. Louis ’05), students have grown hundreds of pounds of strawberries, kale, beets, and more since 2014.

May and Adam are the co-founders and executive directors of Gardeneers, a nonprofit organization that provides schools with the resources and support to cultivate gardens on school grounds and, in the process, teaches kids valuable lessons about healthy eating.

Since its start, Gardeneers has partnered with more than 25 schools throughout Chicago that, like Hay, have the space and desire to host a school garden, but don’t have the knowhow or staff to maintain it year-round. “We’re a one-stop-shop for school gardens. We want it to be a low-lift for schools,” Adam says, noting that Gardeneers’ success lies in its all-inclusive approach to school gardens. From laying the groundwork, to providing year-round education to students, to helping establish farm stands where young gardeners can sell their fresh produce, the program considers every angle of school gardens.

Now with four years behind them that have produced thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables, not even Chicago’s April snow can slow down Gardeneers’ momentum.

Gardeneers is aiming to reach nearly 2,200 students weekly in 18 different neighborhoods all over the city this season.

Gardeneers was born out of passion and opportunity. May and Adam both taught high school in the corps and say the experience made them more aware of the effects of poor nutrition in the communities where they taught.

“Unhealthiness was inhibiting students from achieving their fullest potential,” Adam says. May also specifically recalls a situation where one of her teenage students was unable to identify a blueberry. From these teaching experiences, they both knew that students deserved more opportunity and education in order to live informed, healthy lives—and both knew they could do something about it.

After meeting at a TFA alumni event in late 2013, May and Adam became fast friends. They joined their interests and skillsets—Adam with a business degree and experience with startups, and May with a degree in conservation ecology and several years of classroom experience in Chicago—to create Gardeneers just a few months later in January 2014.

The pair reached out to the TFA network to find schools interested in partnering for Gardeneers’ first growing season. Its first official partner, Oglesby Elementary School, had recently received a grant for a school garden, but didn’t know how to get started. Adam says that’s where Gardeneers came in. “We came in and made it happen.”

Gardeneers hopes to address the “food desert” issue in Chicago, where low-income neighborhoods lack access to fresh, nutritious foods.

With a board that includes former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, Gardeneers has grown and evolved exponentially since that first partnership with Oglesby. In its fifth spring planting season, with a staff of more than 20 people, including eight AmeriCorps service members, it’s aiming to reach 2,200 students each week and has a goal to grow upwards of 6,500 pounds of produce this season.

From sun gold tomatoes to sunflowers in Hyde Park, Evanston, and a dozen neighborhoods in between, Gardeneers’ impact is palpable. But May says that its effect goes beyond the large gardens sprouting at schools around the city. It’s in the individual sense of satisfaction that its young participants experience. “They grew it and they love it. They have a new appreciation and sense of ownership because they created it, and that changes how our students view healthy food,” May says. 

May and Adam are hoping that students’ new skills start to trickle into their homes and influence food decisions permanently. Among Gardeneers’ goals this growing season is to have 70% of students try a new whole food. “Research shows that exposure can influence decisions,” May says, remarking that parents of the students they work with are often amazed at their children’s newfound love of healthy foods.

“They grew it and they love it. They have a new appreciation and sense of ownership because they created it, and that changes how our students view healthy food.”

May Tsupros
Co-founder of Gardeneers

Adam, a Chicago area native, says that while Gardeneers’ mission is personal, it’s not unique to Chicago. “I wish this issue was just here in Chicago, but it’s everywhere. This is an issue that’s important on a much larger scale.”

Speaking to the lack of nutritious, fresh foods in many low-income urban communities—often called “food deserts”—Adam and May know that the issue they’re addressing is complex. Yet with thousands of new young gardeners in the city equipped with knowledge about healthy eating, a new future is blooming for Chicago.