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Compass Green: Planting Seeds of Sustainability
by Justin Cutter
Enlightenment - The Transcendental Meditation Magazine Translate This Article
15 March 2015
Empowering Disenfranchised Youth through School Gardens
Justin Cutter is a young, visionary, ecological gardener and educator who found a unique way to bring the message of sustainability to communities across the country. His work has been featured on the Disney Channel and is backed by leading national brands such as Dr. Bronner Soaps, Frontier Natural Products, and Chipotle. He travels the U.S. teaching students how to grow their own food and inspiring administrators to start school gardens.
Some people have compared me to Johnny Appleseed. But instead of going around planting apple seeds, I'm planting little seeds of knowledge so that children can develop their own gardens. A lot of people live in what are called ''food deserts,'' places where they just don't have access to gardens or healthy food. I realized that most kids can't get to a farm, so I decided to bring the farm to them.
Compass Green is a school garden on wheels, a fully functional greenhouse that grows vegetables, grains, and herbs in the back of an 18-foot box truck. We raise awareness about sustainability through presentations, workshops, and greenhouse tours at schools and events across the country. We feel that everyone, regardless of demographic or age, should have access to sustainability education, and to delicious, fresh food.
Many of these kids are disenfranchised youth, totally disempowered by their situation in life. But when they climb into the truck and see the garden, it sparks their creativity. My goal is to help them understand that they have power, that the choices they make around food can affect their health and the health of the planet.
They would get turned off if they heard the words ''sustainable'' or ''environmental.'' But actually seeing our garden sparks a sense of adventure. And the fact that this adventure is tied to something they could eat, that has very real stakes for our planet, and is fun and easy, makes it all the better.
The elementary school kids are the most fun. They're really, really great. They're still filled with wonder. No little kid has ever gone on the truck and not thought it was just totally awesome.
When I was thirteen, my parents moved our family to Fairfield, Iowa. They wanted my sisters and me to experience education at Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment. I'd been struggling in school, not really enjoying it, and not doing very well academically. When we moved to Fairfield, all that instantly changed. We got so much more personal attention. All the kids were brighter and livelier, and I felt more at home with them.
I lived in Fairfield from seventh grade through college. I really didn't plan on going to Maharishi University of Management, but during my senior year of high school, it became clear that no other university in the world offered what I was looking for—a supportive environment and diving deep into consciousness.
After college I joined a Transcendental Meditation meditation program for men, then worked in Japan as a director of the David Lynch Foundation. Eventually, I started a company to export food to Japan, which led to working with John Jeavons, a world famous agriculturalist. I took him up on his request to help train people to go to developing nations and start sustainability centers.
When that had all been done, I was like, ''Wait a minute! My own country needs this work!'' So I began traveling and teaching sustainability at U.S. colleges. What I discovered from teaching in colleges was that everybody who came to my presentation was already interested in sustainability. So even though it was a lot of fun preaching to the choir, I felt like I wasn't having a significant impact in creating change.
Compass Green Is Born
Then Nick Runkle, one of my very good friends and soccer buddies from Maharishi School, called me with the idea to transform a box truck into a mobile greenhouse. And it just clicked. I felt that this would be a perfect way to reach audiences who did not have a way to learn about growing their own food.
It just seemed cool enough, and weird enough, to engage students who would not come to a lecture on food sustainability. But if they saw a greenhouse truck, they'd be asking, ''What the heck is that?'' I'd say, ''Well, I'm so glad you asked.'' And then talk about why I'm doing it.
Nick was involved for the first year and a half, and we put together a plan. We jumped into a mad fundraising mission where we had one month to raise $27,000 on Kickstarter.com. We put up video and worked our tails off to make it happen. The day before it was all due, the last bit of funding came in, and we had reached our goal.
Over three hundred and thirty people donated from all over the world. It's something that I remember very keenly, because it always tells me that this project is not mine. This really belongs to the people who supported it and want to see sustainability education furthered in the U.S.
With an ever-increasing population and an alarming decrease in farmable soil, we feel it's important to share practical solutions to turn our situation of agricultural scarcity into one of abundance.
On the Road
I came up with a pretty simple greenhouse design with nice deep garden beds. We did the fundraising in April, built the greenhouse in May, grew the plants in June, and by the end of June we'd taught at our first school in the Bronx.
That first year of raising funds, building the truck, and getting on the road was a wild amazing seat-of-our-pants adventure. We taught at summer camps throughout New England, at farmer's markets and music festivals. We traveled across the South, up the West Coast, through the Midwest. We had crazy encounters with sheriffs in the backwoods of Tennessee, wild experiences with marching bands in New Orleans, and fell into an Apache rodeo in rural Arizona.
When fall came, we jumped in on a march for GMO labeling going to Washington, D.C. That's when we met David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner Soaps. Since then, they've been our strongest supporter and sponsor. Other corporate sponsors include Frontier Natural Products, Chipotle, and Urban Gardens Community. Plus, we continue to receive support from individual donors.
I've heard lots of reports that schools have started a school garden after I've been there, and we want to see that continue.
Now we're finding sponsors who will pay for or support gardens at the schools we visit, so that our one-day visit can create a lasting impact in the students' lives.
The media has also picked up on what we're doing. The Disney Channel filmed us in action, and produced a great video. We've had nice stories published by Edible Brooklyn and the LA Weekly magazine.
We ended up teaching over a thousand students in 2011. Then in 2012, we taught 3,000 students. Now I'm doing really packed tours twice a year. I'll teach four schools a week, which is 5,000 students per tour, 10,000 a year. That's a model that is really working well.
Compass Green has grown into what I've always envisioned for it, and we're looking to expand on that. I want to add another teacher to our first truck so they can be traveling while I'm at home planning tours. Eventually, I'd like to have twelve trucks. Hopefully, I'll build my next one in a year. I'm in this for the long haul, and that's because it's been really effective. The model is working, and now we want to see it expand.
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