By intelligently combining agriculture and education, Christoph Schmitz has re-invented the way in which to restore our knowledge and understanding of environmental processes and thus sets the foundation for a whole new generation of people to think and act more sustainably.
The New Idea
Christoph Schmitz has recognized the enormous potential of re-embedding agriculture in society and turning it into the center piece of education for more sustainable development. Having himself grown up on a farm and studied the effects of agriculture on global warming in his PhD thesis, he realized that the most impactful way to change current unsustainable lifestyle patterns would be to educate children differently by learning from nature and natural processes in a holistic and applied way. Christoph thus designed a highly impactful and easily scalable environmental education curriculum: Throughout a whole school year students not only sow and harvest vegetables but they also have to sell them and prepare the field for the next crop thereby taking responsibility for future generations. He engages the students by using games and a play-centered curriculum designed to teach them about vegetables, healthy nutrition and their value in a larger food production context. The field serves as the perfect means to illustrate different facets of sustainable behavior in a globalized world.
In contrast to most school garden projects, the Vegetable Academy goes beyond one-time programmatic interventions and is based on a sustainable financial and scaling model. Constituted as a professional service system, it allows teachers all across Germany and beyond to easily implement the curriculum at their institution, adopt it to the particular needs of their schools while receiving continuous support and materials by the Vegetable Academy team and their network of external mentors. A matching fund system ensures a viable financial model for every Vegetable Academy at school. Building on a team-of-teams effort, Christoph is not only motivating new generations for greater sustainability and healthier nutrition, but by involving numerous stakeholders; he is building a long term citizen base of support for environmental awareness. Moreover, he has started the dialogue on a political level to implement the idea on a national scale and to thus ensure a truly sustainable environmental education. As a best practice this then is replicable beyond national borders.
The Vegetable Academy is a smart combination of an innovative curriculum (including online/offline tools), a holistic approach to the entire value chain, intergenerational learning between students, teachers and mentors, as well as building on a sustainable crop sequence and putting the teacher in the focus of the service. It has – for the first time - made it easy to ensure environmental education at every school and restores the link between society and nature.
Rapid urbanization and a shrinking agriculture labor pool (only 1% of the German population are employed in this sector) have led to an bifurcation between society and the food production system. This disconnect directly translates into 61% of the food waste coming from households as well as other unsustainable behavior (consumption of products related to high CO2 emissions).Studies have demonstrated the link between the lack of exposure to nature and natural processes and environmentally damaging behavior (Otto). Another dramatic consequence is poor nutrition and a tendency to consume processed, ready-made and so-called “functional food”. Children, particularly those from poorer and/or minority families, are more likely to be obese due to a lack of knowledge about different consumption patterns. Yet, the problem goes beyond social strata as for most people in industrialized countries; their first contact with food is at the supermarket. The complex processes of the value chain before the supermarket sale remain unknown to the consumer, which makes it difficult to truly comprehend the value of the product. It is no wonder then, that willingness amongst the German population to pay a certain price for food has gone down to only 15 % of one’s income. Yet, the cheaper the price, the higher is the energy density and consequently the lower is the quality of food (Biesalski).
Past attempts to solve this problem included awareness campaigns for better nutrition, programs encouraging excursions and visits to farms, as well as urban gardening initiatives. However, these initiatives are usually expensive and time consuming with no to little effect on environmental learnings. Moreover, they do not tackle the root cause of the problem, which would mean to permanently break up the silos and reintegrate agriculture and society to restore our connection to farming. Environmental psychologists point out that the most impactful actions for sustainable behavior are the ones striving to increase motivation for environmental protection (Otto). Yet, school gardens, which could be perfect spaces to foster this kind of motivation in everyone and very early on, are seldom based on a sustainable model for environmental education.
Even though Germany has a long tradition of school gardens, many of them are abandoned, and very few are pedagogically used (5 %). Reasons for failing to use these fields as active learning places are the following: they are resource-intensive and semi-professional (without any serious agricultural knowledge and didactical concept) and often depend on only one particularly engaged teacher. Usually, the teacher has all the responsibility of tending to the field by himself until he is too tired, sick or no longer motivated to do so. The lack of teacher training and necessary support to create gardens on-site, the lack of tools to motivate students, and missing cooperation with other stakeholders, as well as failing to involve parents as well as numerous colleagues have so far hindered school gardens from being successful.
The Vegetable Academy sets out to not only revive these abandoned school gardens, it more importantly aims to establish active environmental education sites at the vast majority of schools without any gardens. Christoph particularly focuses on schools with or without gardens that have difficulties implementing these sites due to very urban environments, lack of financial means and/or excessive demands in teaching a highly diverse student body already. As research shows, many schools see and feel the need to implement new learning models, but lack resources and knowledge – barriers to be overcome with the model introduced by Vegetable Academy. The success of their curriculum has proven the current political agenda, relying on one-time interventions and short term environmental learning wrong, and has opened up a way so that everyone can (re-)create that connection to the environment.
Christoph is working towards the necessary mindset shift that re-embeds agriculture in society and turns it into the center piece for environmental education. In order to do this, he fosters an appreciation for the true value of nature, thus setting the basis for sustainable lifestyles as well as healthier consumption and nutrition patterns. Starting its work only in 2013/4, the Vegetable Academy is now present at 24 schools in Germany and Austria involving more than 700 children, and has adapted the curriculum already to other contexts such as Kindergarten, sports clubs and professional education programs.
The agricultural field is always the central piece of the curriculum, because it is the key to illustrate the different facets of sustainability. Over the course of one school year, 20 - 30 students (mostly aged 8-14) plant and grow vegetables on a field (min.100sq) on or very close to their school campus that has been prepared and set up together with the Vegetable Academy team. Either as an afternoon activity or as part of the school day, the participating children form teams of 4-6 students responsible for a certain parcel of the land -- each student team has the continuous support of a Vegetable Academy trained external mentor (parent, older student, retiree) and at least one teacher. The Vegetable Academy provides all necessary and very professionally made learning materials as well as gardening supplies and seeds. An online learning game forms an important addition to the curriculum: here students can gain points for their planting successes, answer online questions, get more information and compare themselves with other participating schools. The online game is a motivational tool and increases the environmental learning success. Most importantly, it connects with the living reality of the kids who are natives in new technologies but otherwise lack contact with nature. The curriculum consists of 20 modules, the first 10 focusing on vegetable growth and harvest, agriculture, and the last 10 focusing on nutrition and conservation, and ensuring the transfer to more global topics such as food waste, virtual water and biodiversity. During the harvesting period, the Vegetable Academy triggers students’ entrepreneurial qualities, because - often for the first time - participants also have to think about pricing and selling their vegetables. Sales strategies vary between three models: 1) fixed purchase by the school cafeteria, 2) vegetable sponsor (the kids look for one vegetable sponsor who will buy off the weekly harvest), 3) “over-the-fence sale” (kids try to sell vegetables at school events or at a stand in the neighborhood). The Vegetable Academy year ends with the preparation of the field for the next generation.
The combination of elements in the curriculum guarantees that students will not only learn in an applied and holistic way about agriculture and nutrition, but it also fosters intergenerational learning, teamwork and respect, responsibility and leadership skills. Teachers have pointed out that ‘difficult’ kids in particular have been positively affected and with a boost in self-esteem were often able to generally improve their learning successes in other classes as well. For example, there is a student who has a learning disability and difficulty concentrating in the regular school setting. In the Vegetable Academy, however, he is one of the most interested and enthusiastic students. His teacher noticed that his motivation to go to school and to learn has increased significantly since then (Vegetable Academy Impact Report).
A team effort as well as continuous teachers’ support is crucial for the success of the Vegetable Academy. Christoph and his team support in the set-up of the field, the sowing as well as the necessary agricultural information, but also provide weekly materials and reminders, support for sales during vacation times, as well as on-site help through the matching with mentors and “personal field consultants”. They also ensure embedding their actions in the agricultural ecosystem through raising awareness and matchings with other stakeholders (for extra-curricular visits to farms, wholesale trading places, supermarkets, or other related possible sites of interest). If needed, the team offers special trainings, and fosters exchange with other Vegetable Academy teachers – all to strengthen the network and continuity of vegetable academies at schools.
The only prerequisite for setting up the Vegetable Academy is an interested school teacher. Since the vegetable academy has so far strategically been present at the relevant teacher networks conventions, at important conferences and education sector events as well as in (social) media, they have in very short time gained an enormous visibility. For 2016, there are already 60 new schools that have showed interest in implementing the Vegetable Academy. To ensure the financial viability of each Vegetable Academy at school, Christoph has come up with an innovative match fund system. The Vegetable Academy costs 4000 €/school/year, with an additional 1.500€ in the first year for the set-up of the field, which is paid by the school (alternatively by the friends’ association, or a local sponsor). The yearly amount is split between 2.500€ being paid by a company sponsor (the Vegetable Academy team is responsible for the acquirement) and 1.500€ paid by the school (but re-financed for example by the revenue of the vegetable sales). Several companies (i.e. BioCompany) already regionally contribute to the match fund in addition to grants by foundations (Raiffeisen Stiftung, Software AG Stiftung, etc.) and public funding (city of Munich). The Vegetable Academy plans to permanently ensure parts of the match funds through a commitment by the German government to invest in education for sustainable development. Discussions with various environmental state ministries as well as the ministry of education are already taking place.
In order to truly change the educational plan and to influence political decision making so that innovative learning for sustainability is given more space in schools, the Vegetable Academy plans to scale as quickly as possible without compromising on quality. Taking into consideration the regional differences in education in Germany, they have developed a social-franchise-system that builds on local/regional coordinators. These coordinators are trained for two weeks in Berlin und later use the standardized Vegetable Academy material and methodology, but they are responsible for local networking, implementation and adaptation as well as coordination and quality management. This way Christoph and his small core team of 7 (and a total budget of currently about 380.000 €) can continue to focus on the core competences of the Vegetable Academy (entrepreneurial strategy, quality pedagogical approach, impact measurement and quality management).
The Vegetable Academy ensures sustainable education in contrast to many programmatic interventions with little to no lasting impact. The initial impact evaluation has shown that 2/3 of the participating kids discovered new kinds of vegetables and parents reported significant changes in the eating routine of their children. The teachers gave without exception an excellent rating for the service. In addition, they reported the considerable enthusiasm of the kids for the Vegetable Academy lessons. Quite a few kids started to grow vegetables at home and shared their knowledge with siblings or grandparents. And a lot of parents said that they too learned a lot because they were confronted with previously unknown types of vegetables or were asked big questions about the larger context of agriculture and sustainability.
With more and more full-time schools in Germany and need for afternoon activities, the scaling potential is huge. The Vegetable Academy provides a “ready-to-use” education model, easily implemented at every school and significantly improving environmental knowledge and raising awareness for more sustainable behavior. A “plug-in” version of it is easily imaginable in other national contexts. Also, this method may not only be used to foster sustainability but is possibly transferable to other pressing societal issues in the future, changing learning practices in general.
Early on in his life, Christoph was confronted with the ways in which (post)industrial German society, supposedly a pioneer in the context of sustainability, had become alienated from nature. Growing up on a farm with one of the best soil qualities in Germany, he experienced firsthand his family’s fight against the appropriation of the land by the coal mining industry, which was ultimately unsuccessful and resulted in a resettlement of the farm by 2030. Christoph, nevertheless, developed more and more of an interest in the economic functioning of the farm, and founded his first social business at the age of 12, when given a small plot, which he used for growing Christmas trees with a social benefit: 20% of the turnover was given to the "Kindernothilfe" for orphan children. Deciding to combine his interest in agriculture with the social and economic dimension of it he went to university to study agricultural science with a focus on development economics. During his research trip to Ghana, he became aware that the dramatic soil conditions were the underlying reason for the poverty of farmers. He thus founded the social business DeCo! Sustainable Farming - the first producer of organic fertilizer in Ghana. At a pilot plant he developed a low-tech approach for producing the fertilizer with local ingredients from nature and bio-waste from towns. DeCo! now employs 15 people and provides smallholder farmers with a high-quality fertilizer. Together with the largest waste company in Ghana, Christoph developed an approach to scale the idea up to other regions in Ghana.
Back in Germany and while working at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research on his PhD about sustainable agriculture, Christoph couldn’t let go of the feeling that even in Germany and many other industrialized countries something needed to be done urgently against society’s growing environmental alienation, which was leading to increasing unsustainable behavior. He thus analyzed the root causes for the problem in detail and designed a solution that would tackle all of these issues. The idea was born to provide true environmental learning places – and to start as early in life as possible – that will become the long term citizen base of support for the appreciation and value of nature.
Driven by his own experience of having grown up on a farm as well as his research and entrepreneurial experiences, he started to implement the Vegetable Academy. It is obvious when speaking to him or other people involved that Christoph has found his mission and is a passionate social entrepreneur, continuously improving and evaluating his strategy, so that everyone will have the opportunity for sustainable education - just like Anna, one of the first vegetable school participants. As he recounts, Anna came every Saturday with jogging pants and painted fingernails. She was very motivated. When we started to harvest the tomatoes, I told her that she could try one. She said: ‘I have never eaten tomatoes before’, to which he responded ‘but you have eaten tomatoes in pizza or tomato sauce’. She answered: ‘Of course, but never those round ones’.