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Sound Consumer | October 2001

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Cultural anthropologists tell us that our food ways are inextricably tied to the web of our cultural and life experiences. School vending machines full of sodas are not an anomaly. Administrators have justified them as an acceptable means of funding school programs because of the cultural climate of our times.

Funding programs financed by encouraging kids' cola consumption is the net result of having had our cultural views shaped by heavily funded, brilliantly calculated campaigns, slogans, signage, music and "product placement" in films, magazines, billboards, and sporting and community events.

A systemic solution
Systemic problems require systemic solutions. That is the strong conviction that led Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., physicist and systems theorist, to co-found the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley. The author of several international bestsellers, including "The Tao of Physics" and "The Web of Life," Professor Capra writes

"Ecological literacy means seeing the world as an interconnected whole ... At the Center for Ecoliteracy, we've experienced that growing a school garden and using it as a resource for cooking school meals is an ideal project for experiencing systems thinking and the principles of ecology in action, and for integrating the curriculum. Gardening reconnects children to the fundamentals of food — indeed, to the fundamentals of life — while integrating and enlivening virtually every activity that takes place at a school."

A model plan
This summer, I toured three middle school gardens in the Berkeley Unified School District, where Ecoliteracy's "Food Systems Project" is transforming lives. The students were on summer break, but in each school garden there was evidence of their presence.

The smallest garden was only about 60 by 20 feet and was positioned in an inner courtyard. It featured squashes, climbing beans, tomatoes, peppers, and corn, salad vegetables, strawberries and raspberries. It also had rabbits (for fertilizer, not food), ducks (for some weed control and eggs), two goats (for some milk) and a few chickens (for fertilizer and eggs).

Students regularly spend part of every day working in the garden and helping with the animals. We heard stories of how the kids discover foods they otherwise might not try (or believe they hated!) They express wonder at seeds becoming plants and delight in seeing the new growth each day. They know now that food does not just come from the store.

The best-known garden, due in part to its special booster, Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse restaurant, is nearly one acre. It is the pride and joy of the 900 students, 12 faculty and 100 volunteers who have transformed an asphalt covered, weed-infested eyesore at the aging Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley into The Edible Schoolyard.

It is an exquisite, rambling, marvelous garden, with "never a straight row, on purpose" according to a volunteer. Art classes have made whimsical garden signs for all vegetables, herbs and flowers, always in English, Spanish and sometimes a third language. Bees buzz and honey is collected. Open-air ovens augment classroom-cooking experiences. Compost bins are in various stages. An inviting circular open-air classroom is enclosed in overhead vines, seating 30 to 40 on comfortable straw bales. Another straw bale classroom is arranged as an amphitheater under lovely old shade trees. The air is perfumed. Beauty abounds. Students beg for extra time to work in the garden!

In this program, all students receive free breakfast, lunch and snack, since the mission is the immediate improvement of the total nutrition and health of all of the students.

Successful results
Success stories were enthusiastically shared by the full-time young garden coordinators at two of the schools. Both were employed on stipend wages as AmeriCorp workers. One is a graduate of Evergreen College's Organic Agriculture program, in Olympia. Another said he learned "by the seat of my pants!" and loved every minute of it.

The educators on my tour marveled at his charismatic approach to story telling and they pointed out the two-burner stove in the garden, saying that many times kids came out to do extra volunteer work after school. They were hungry for food, because sometimes there would be no food at their home. But they were hungry for talking, too. Together they would move through the garden, pick vegetables, and prepare and share a simple stir-fry or omelet.

The Food Systems Project serves as a practical demonstration of what extraordinary things are possible — when good people decide to figuratively, and literally, start planting seeds of change. Practical information is available from the project, including methods to:

  • develop district-wide food systems-based curriculum
  • improve food access and nutritional health (in cooperation with other community organizations)
  • link family farms to schools
  • tackle food-related public policy issues

Local change is possible
September's Sound Consumer featured a story on the exciting possibilities for the new nonprofit Magnolia Dairy ACRES (Agrarian Cultural Resource and Education Society). The old Magnolia Dairy, an 80-acre site across from Bothell High School, could be transformed into a city-friendly demonstration farm. Imagine a working farm experience for school-age youth with vocational programs on sustainable agriculture. Picture seasonal festivals, barn dances, and heritage workshops.

To learn more, call Barry Lia, ACRES Board President at 206-522-1937. The King County Council already has earmarked $500,000 in matching funds to purchase the farm. Private donations, payable to "PCC Farmland Fund for Magnolia Dairy ACRES" are needed to progress.

Even without an old dairy across the street, imagine starting a garden at your neighborhood school. Are you a teacher or work for the school district? Do you want organic and locally grown fresh foods on your student's school menu? How about starting with organic apples, oranges, juices and milk in school vending machines?

Call or email us at the Sound Consumer. We can be a clearing house for information to help you make changes in your local school.

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