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The Incredible Edible Schoolyard

School garden projects are reaping the benefits of teaching community values and hands-on learning

Alice Waters used to go past her local school, Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., to get to and from work at her landmark restaurant, Chez Panisse. Since she invariably went past it early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and because the school was, frankly, less than gorgeous, she assumed it was not in use. Neil Smith, then the principal at King, heard her say this in an interview, and called her to say that, in fact, 950 students used the school every day. He asked: Would she like to visit.

The visit turned into a lunch, where Waters outlined her idea of creating a school garden that would feed the students who grew the plants. This nugget of an idea has transformed, over time and with the assistance of a wide range of people and organizations, into a project that covers an acre of school property and employs eight full-time staff.

The Edible Schoolyard is now a model for school garden projects across the United States. But it didn't start out that way. Ten years ago, the area that is now a blooming, teeming mass of flowers, vegetables, herbs and plants was vacant, covered with asphalt. It was more parking lot than garden plot. The garden project languished in the back of Smith's mind as something worth doing, but something that could not yet be done. He knew he needed support. Within six months, things began to happen. A parent volunteered to spearhead the project, community events were organized to drum up support, and local landscape architects shaped the layout and basic design of the one-acre plot.

"We can do without reading and writing, but we certainly can't do without eating." -Alice Waters

Smith went to the district and said, in essence, that the site proposed for the garden was unused space, an eyesore of a vacant lot that served no function. He was given the green light to tear it up and plant a garden, since the plans did not include taking out any classroom space and since it wasn't going to cost the district a dime.

Jack McLaughlin, then the superintendent, "bought into the vision" of the project, says Smith, and was a vocal supporter who attended community events and "cleared roadblocks" away at the district level that might have slowed or stopped the project. From the initial idea of a garden to the planting of the first cover crop took about 18 months.

Concurrent with the development of the garden was the growth of the kitchen. The idea, as Waters originally conceived it, was to create an understanding of the continuum of garden to kitchen, kitchen to table, and table back to garden. The school had no working kitchen, just a unused cafeteria space slated for renovation into classrooms. The old space was used until the renovation got under way, then a new kitchen was built in a bungalow, and that is the kitchen that is in use today. The idea of having the garden produce food for a cafeteria was scrapped, and instead the garden produces food for the kitchen classroom.

In the kitchen, classes are taught by a full-time cooking instructor; the kids are responsible for cooking, setting the tables, serving and cleaning up. Waters feels that this is "essential education," this ability to create community around food. It's the kind of thing that used to be taught at home but that has seemingly disappeared.

Teaching Much More Than Nutrition

And the kids eat it up. Literally. "I don't know what that is, I'm not eating that" eventually evolves into trying foods they've never heard of before. Kids take home recipes and fix things for their families; they proudly take home produce, too.

The garden has changed the tone of the school, says Smith. When he watches kids work together and eat together, he can see that they enjoy each other; they see their role as part of a community in a much clearer way, and this impacts their behavior. The spillover from the garden shows up across the school--behavior improves when the students care about what they're doing. They also gain a sense of where food comes from and their connectedness to the world. It is explicit: what they see here is what's growing in their bio-region. It's not about plastic-wrapped heads of lettuce in the supermarket. They get the connection between what's grown and what they eat.

What kids are eating is a hot-button issue in schools and across the country. Childhood obesity is on the rise, and disorders like ADD have been linked to what children eat. Prevention is key. Changing the way kids eat, as well as what they eat, is a large part of the garden project. When kids grow, cook and serve their own food, they want to eat it, their friends want to eat it, they have a connection to it and a pride in it. "It's a magical thing," says Waters. "They're hungry for the food as well as for the experience." Sharing the growing, preparing and eating of food is fundamental to human experience; "As soon as you get back to that, it's like a magnet: kids want it."

Waters admits she wants to teach values, something that schools are not necessarily equipped to do, or even willing to attempt. But the students are already learning values, "fast-food values," that Waters urges are not going to stand them in good stead in their lives. They learn these values by example, without being "taught"--why not introduce slow-food values as an alternative? "We're not telling them what they have to eat," says Waters, "we're engaging them in the process" by teaching them to garden and to cook. "We can do without reading and writing," Waters says with only a trace of irony, "but we certainly can't do without eating."

Dining In

The next phase of the Edible Schoolyard's evolution is the construction of a Dining Commons. Scheduled to be open in 2006, the commons will seat 500 students at a time, and will provide food cooked on-site, potentially with student assistance. Though the plans are still under discussion, it is hoped that the majority of the produce supplied will be local and organic, and that the menus will reflect seasonal availability of ingredients and the ethnicity of the students (36 percent African-American and18 percent Latino). The students' first exposure to this kind of food and cooking is in the kitchen classroom, so when it shows up on the lunch table they are open to the idea. You can't just plunk a plate of greens in front of a teenager and expect them to eat it. In context, and with experience, different foods become familiar, and the kids become willing to try almost anything.

The garden is set up to be kid-friendly, too. Instead of row upon row of crops, paths wind through beds of flowers and mixed beds of flowers, herbs and food plants. While this is admittedly not the highest use of the land in terms of food production, it does allow for a lot of student input into what gets planted, and where. It makes the garden a welcoming, almost secret place, with surprising turns and pretty spots for quiet thought. The garden is open year-round, unfenced and unguarded, for the enjoyment of the neighbors. Small signs ask that visitors respect the work of the students and not pick the flowers, but the kids are encouraged to nibble--plants like raspberries, peas and baby carrots are there expressly for that reason. It's not unusual to see kids in the raspberry canes before school, having breakfast, says Chelsea Chapman, assistant program coordinator at the garden.

It's Still School

Despite being fun, hands-on and well-loved, the garden and the kitchen are still very much part of the school curriculum. It's easy to relate all of the school subjects into both the garden and the kitchen, says Waters. Food and culture are intimately connected. While the garden lends itself easily to questions of science, it is also connected to literature, mathematics and history. The kitchen can easily pursue social science, but it is also adaptable to chemistry, language and art. Sixth graders learn about ecology in a pile of compost, and about ancient civilizations in the kitchen's grain unit. When they actually grow the grain, grind it into flour, and bake bread from it, they gain a personal understanding of the difficulties faced by civilizations that lived and died by what they could successfully cultivate. Hands-on experience helps kids remember what they learn, says Smith, and that the kids enjoy the lessons helps reinforce the learning even more.

The kids eat it up. Literally. Kids take home
recipes and fix things for their families;
they proudly take home produce, too.

In the garden, the garden instructor conducts classes. The students meet at the beginning of the lesson, where the instructor outlines the tasks that need to be completed that day, usually things like planting, composting, harvesting and repairs or building. The kids choose which jobs they want to do. The actual curriculum background happens in the classroom: the garden is to do. The kids are asked to think about a particular idea or to notice something new, and bring their observations back to the group at the end of the garden session. The classroom teacher works with the kids. The garden instructor is analogous to a librarian in a library: he is not there to replace the teacher but to provide specialized instruction in a unique environment. Just like in a library, the kids need to learn how to work within the garden to get the most out of the experience.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

When people plant a seed, they hope it will grow. They can water it, fertilize it, but there are no guarantees that the plant will bear fruit. That's what gardens are all about. So if you're looking to replicate this experiment in your district, start small. This garden grew through the determination of several people, the funding of people like Alice Waters and her powerful friends, and a generous helping of luck.

At the outset, Smith says he was approached by the Center for Eco-Literacy, who said, "We want to help fund this, what do you need?" They funded a full-time garden teacher. The Edible Schoolyard was set up as a non-profit organization--an essential step if you are going to raise outside funds, since funding organizations can't give money to a particular public school, but they can give to a non-profit operating within a school. The garden project dove-tailed nicely with a California state program called A Garden in Every School, which lends curriculum guidance that supports the state-wide standards. The City of Berkeley donated 100 tons of compost to get the initial garden soil going in the right direction. Certain projects--like carts for the tools, a shed for the equipment, and a proper house for the chickens--were funded by grants. The California Rare Fruit Growers Association donated trees. A new wood-burning pizza oven has just been built--the oven company donated the inner workings, and kids and volunteers did the construction. The Chez Panisse Foundation is currently funding the majority of the Edible Schoolyard's $400K a year budget.

What you really need to begin is a patch of dirt, a few seeds, some water, some sunshine, and a little faith that your garden will grow. You can get amazing results with students when you let them get dirty and experience the success of growing their own food.

Elizabeth Crane,, is a contributing editor.