With teaching experience, an entrepreneurial nature, and a desire to give back, May Tsupros and Adam Zmick are planting the seeds of change—literally—in some of Chicago’s most under-resourced neighborhoods.

By Bryan Kitch


“What makes the crops rejoice, Maecenas, under what stars
to plough and marry vines to their arbor of elms,
what care the cattle need, what tending the flocks must have,
how much practical knowledge to keep frugal bees --
here I start my song.”
Georgics I ¹

The Gardeneers program, which now serves 25 schools in Chicago, grew organically.

“I was still teaching in the classroom, and Adam was doing another teaching education program in Chicago. He and I met in 2013 at an entrepreneurship event put together by Teach For America. We ended up meeting at that event because we both had a strong desire to work on school gardens and providing healthy options for students.”

Tsupros, whose academic background included a BS in Conservation Ecology and Biology (as well as an MA in Teaching), had served as a teacher in Chicago for seven years.

She continues: “My personal experience was that in my time in the classroom — I worked at schools that were very data focused, very results focused—kids were working hard to reach their goals, and having success to a point. But, I felt like no matter how hard we worked, there was a ceiling on how much the students could achieve because they weren’t having their basic needs, like nutrition, met. There was so much more that we could do for the students — that’s where education equity and food equity really come together.”

The idea of a ‘food desert’ (an area where fresh produce and affordable nutritious options are extremely limited) is something that is more widely discussed and appreciated nowadays, but there are still few solutions out there for the majority of under-served communities. Not only does that affect the choices that people in the area make, but also the outcomes—the logic goes like this: The more healthy options available to people at reasonable prices, the more opportunity they have to live better, healthier lives, which in turn helps them improve their ability to perform in the classroom, at work, etc.

Asked about what played the biggest role in the inspiration and development of the Gardeneers program, Zmick says there are too many important factors to limit it to any one thing.

“All those reasons [above] are kind of tied in together — you can’t really separate them,” Zmick says. “And that was part of what made this such an obvious choice. Nutrition access, giving back and community, and academic results—those are all key goals of our programming.”

Zmick’s road to co-founding the Gardeneers was a little less streamlined. Having studied Engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, Zmick attended a job fair during his senior year that would shape his outlook on his career, in a less-than-predictable way.

“The science that I studied (as it turned out) is the same that used in weapons development,” Zmick explains. “I realized as I was getting to the end of my college experience that the people looking to hire were weapons manufacturers —that’s not what I wanted to do with my education.

That’s when he attended the job fair, and happened to stumble across a TFA booth when on his way out the door.

“[The job fair] was at the student union in the main ballroom — as I was leaving, I met a Teach For America recruiter in the lobby.

“I still wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do — I wasn’t intending to work in that field. I had gotten into that major and completed it because it was an interest area of mine that I wanted to pursue, but felt that Teach For America was the best way to apply my skills and knowledge versus working in the weapons industry.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a starker contrast between what is and what could have been for Zmick.

Grassroots Growth

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring --
 When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; 
 Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush 
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring 
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; 
 The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush 
 The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush 
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? 
 A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning 
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy, 
 Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning, 
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, 
 Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins,
Spring ²

“Adam, really for that first year, was pivotal in creating a lot of programming — I was more on the outside for the first year,” Tsupros says. “And then the following summer in July, I got voted into a full-time position by the board. But it was a lot of bootstrapping for the first couple years really.”

“It was a lot of work — a lot of trial and error,” echoes Zmick. “Lots and lots of just very long hours. I was eating, breathing, sleeping Gardeneers— pretty much every waking hour. I was doing a lot of accounting, meeting with potential funders, doing programming, meeting with kids at their school sites—it took a tremendous amount of work to get started. I just feel very lucky that it worked out.”

“There is a national organization that does programming in Chicago called Big Green,” explains Tsupros, “but what makes Gardeneers special is that it’s a very different model — we provide infrastructure, maintenance and programming — it’s an inside out way to build garden culture. We don’t prescribe how the garden is going to look. It’s a reflection of everyone’s priorities at a given site.”

Not only that, but there’s a lasting commitment to each site.

“The growth model — at the outset, we were really focused on getting into a lot of schools. But in talking with our garden educators, students, teachers—through all these conversations (we really do love feedback and listening to our staff) — we really have made a transition to focusing on growing within schools rather than expanding programming to a huge number of campuses, at least for now.”

Indeed, in the first year of the program, Gardeneers expanded from an initial nine school sites to 20 overall.

Since then, that number has grown, but only to 25 total—that’s because both Tsupros and Zmick are committed to program quality and learning from their peers and students.

Moving Forward with Data

“When we go out into the fields of learning
We go by a rough route
Marked by colossal statues, Frankenstein’s
Monsters, AMPAC and the 704,
AARDVARK, and deoxyribonucleic acid.
They guard the way.
Headless they nod, wink eyeless,
Thoughtless compute, not heartless,
For they figure us, they figure
Our next turning.
They are reading the book to be written.
As we start out
At first daylight into the fields, they are saying,
Starting out.”
-Josephine Miles,
Fields of Learning ³

“We wanted to make sure that we were set up for success,” Zmick says. “There were so many questions about how we were going to structure our organization, who reports to whom, what our lessons would look like—it’s something that continues to evolve.”

“We are constantly going back to the drawing board regarding program data,” says Tsupros. “The reason we are excited about partnership with UpMetrics is that we will have quantifiable data & quantitative data — it’s really exciting because it will help us continue to build out programming, and take it to the next level. That data will allow us to better understand how our lessons are affecting kids and their attitudes toward healthy food.”

“What the most important piece is—it’s impossible to say. There are many important pieces. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is one component. Many of our students might be very happy about the way the community is strengthened by our programming, and that’s not captured in a standard knowledge-based test. We would love to have the kind of evaluation that provides measurable data that ties to their feeling of community and impact — something that we can show to folks that reflects on the value of our programs, outside of more traditional metrics or testing.”

He adds: “Some of the data we get will drive decision making regarding expansion — there’s a tradeoff there, but how can we make our program reach more kids and maintain level of effectiveness? Knowing the quality of our programs and how expansion effects that will be keys to our success going forward.

“We have lots of schools that are reaching out and asking for what we do—when is the right time to expand and say yes to some of these schools that are reaching out to us? The data will help us determine the best time for expansion, as well as what aspects of programming resonate most with the students.”

Story by Bryan Kitch. Photos courtesy of the Gardeneers.