Atmos Energy and Texas A&M University-Commerce are digging into an exciting new gardening program to benefit Northeast Texas schools and communities. Atmos Energy presented a $35,000 check to university representatives on February 11 to kick-start the initiative.
The program, dubbed “Lion Gardeners on the Go,” will help schools and communities establish fruit, vegetable and pollinator gardens to promote food and ag literacy and support natural resource conservation in rural and urban neighborhoods.
The university's partnership with Atmos Energy is a natural fit. Through Fueling Safe and Thriving Communities, Atmos Energy works with schools and organizations across eight states to promote health and literacy in the communities they serve.
In fact, Atmos Energy is a long-time educational partner with A&M-Commerce. The company established the Atmos Energy Scholarship—with an endowed balance of more than $40,000—which has provided scholarships to engineering and technology students at A&M-Commerce since 2010.
Beth Dattomo, manager of public affairs for Atmos Energy, said the company is thrilled to partner with A&M-Commerce on the new gardening project.
“We are proud to enhance our continued partnership with A&M-Commerce to support the Lion Gardeners on the Go program,” Dattomo said. “This partnership gives us the opportunity to support the construction of elementary school gardens and community gardens and provide educational gardening tool kits to fuel bright minds and healthy futures.”
Dr. Randy Harp, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, expressed his appreciation for Atmos' generous gift.
“Atmos Energy has been a wonderful partner to promote quality education and promising futures for our students,” Harp said. “This community garden initiative will truly help our students and the community at large.”
Lion Gardeners on the Go will be powered by students and faculty in the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems program at A&M-Commerce. Participants will share horticultural information and resources with area schools and communities and help them prepare and plant initial garden sites.
Dr. Bob Williams, professor of agriculture, food and family at A&M-Commerce, serves as the Lion Gardeners' faculty advisor. He said the group plans to establish six to eight school gardens per year and around one to two community gardens.
Currently, the Lion Gardeners program is working to purchase, design and outfit a covered cargo-style trailer. The trailer will be fully equipped with the tools, supplies and equipment needed to construct garden structures and prepare sites for planting. The trailer will be covered in a marketing wrap that will showcase A&M-Commerce and Atmos Energy logos.
Williams said school and community gardens benefit learners of all ages. For one, they help people disconnect from electronics and re-connect with nature.
“School gardens play an important role in connecting students with nature and the great outdoors,” Williams said. “Whether it is a pollinator, flower, or vegetable garden, students can see connections and life cycles, and better understand that humans are part of a larger, more complex ecosystem.”
He added: “Likewise, community gardens bring people together for a common purpose in a common space. Like school gardens, they help folks get in tune with nature and, hopefully, they will keep nature on their playlist.”
Williams also said that the Lion Gardeners initiative will provide crucial hands-on learning opportunities for sustainable ag majors.
Plans are already in place to grow the gardening program beyond phase one. The second phase is scheduled for Fall 2022 and will expand student and volunteer training opportunities and increase outreach to area schools.
Phase 3, slated for Summer 2023, will feature a Gardening Across the Curriculum workshop, where teachers will learn how to start and maintain school gardens, obtain grant opportunities for funding school gardens, and incorporate gardening into lesson plans.
Photo: L to R: A&M-Commerce Reps Amber Countis, April Carl, Dr. Bob Williams and Atmos Energy Reps Joe Christian (TAMUC alum), Beth Dattomo