It all started with a school garden at Pacific Elementary in 1999.
With that garden, three Manhattan Beach parents who wanted to inspire healthy eating started GrowingGreat.
The nonprofit has since grown into a nationwide movement which now serves 15,000 children each year with hands-on nutrition, garden and science education, according to Executive Director Jennifer Jovanovic.
“Children in Manhattan Beach have access to so many things to help them grow up strong ... it’s always been important to the Growing Great founders to give this experience to other children,” Jovanovic said. “Here we are, 20 years later and that dream has become a reality—not just in Los Angeles—but nationwide.”
As GrowingGreat prepares to celebrate its 20 year anniversary with its sixth annual Farm to Table benefit April 27, Jovanovic said the organization has hit several milestones along the way, such as programming now being offered for more age groups.
“It started with grades 3 through 5, now we do preschool and high school,” she explained.
In 2014, when Jovanovic came on board, GrowingGreat began offering early childhood programs for ages 2 to 6, focusing on hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning in school gardens as well as nutrition education.
“We provide professional development to teachers who blend GrowingGreat’s multicultural program into their existing curriculum,” the organization said in its annual report. “We also work directly in the classroom, engaging students…”
The nonprofit also began the GrowingGreat Chefs program for high school aged students in 2015, according to the report.
The hybrid nutrition and cooking classes are meant to help teenagers ages 12 through 18 learn how to set up their own kitchens and make healthy choices once out on their own, Jovanovic said.
The nonprofit also continues to offer STEM lab education in school gardens and classroom nutrition programming for elementary school children ages 5 to 11, she added.
But, as GrowingGreat continues to grow, Jovanovic said the organization will now strive to bring such hands-on learning to even more youth through a new national collaboration with the Association of Science-Technology Centers.
The Washington D.C. based nonprofit provides professional support, programming opportunities and a collective voice for 650 science centers, museums and other related institutions in nearly 50 countries, according to Jovanovic.
“I see that as a huge growth potential area for us,” she mused, noting GrowingGreat will be giving a leadership award to the ASTC on behalf of the partnership.
Through the museums, GrowingGreat is offering the My First Garden curriculum - which includes 10, ready-to-use bilingual activities connecting science, garden, nutrition and literacy - to educators, parents and families across the country.
The goal of offering the My First Garden curriculum in museums, Jovanovic explained, is to reach as many children as possible, particularly in low-income communities where they may not otherwise have access to such a program.
“Some of these kids are living in areas that we call food deserts which means it's really hard to get access to fresh produce,” she said. “This takes it way beyond what we’re able to do ourselves.”
While 65 percent of the thousands of students GrowingGreat reached in 2018 were from low-income communities such as Downey, Inglewood and Lawndale, according to the annual report, Jovanovic said the organization is looking to increase that number in the coming year.
“It’s really hard in low-income school districts to keep the program thriving,” she explained. “We come in those communities and help them maintain the program, integrate healthy eating and science.”
She said GrowingGreat’s larger philosophy is that every child should have a green space to call their own and that, for many, a school garden can make a huge difference.
“This isn’t just a patch of land for them, it’s their own garden where they can grow things and harvest what they eat,” Jovanovic explained.
For more information on GrowingGreat or to purchase tickets to the Farm to Table benefit, which will honor Chef David LeFevre and offer a dinner by Redbird Chef Neal Fraser, visit growinggreat.org.