Can I eat this?
School gardens grow up
When my children were babies, the whole world was food. I was forever fishing foreign things from their mouths. But when they got bigger their ingredient list shrank, winnowed—essentially—to macaroni and cheese.
I kept trying, of course, and eventually my children grew up, developing (somewhat) sophisticated palates and a (reasonably) adventurous approach to food. Perhaps they were fortunate to have a serious foodie for a mom, maybe this explains their eventual willingness to sample. But not every child grows up on fig compote and grilled portabellos, and that was made plain on a recent trip through a school garden.
“Can I eat this?” came the uncertain query from the platoon of giddy third-graders as they wandered the El Verano school garden last fall. With eyes sparkling they looked skyward for their teacher’s permission to try the strange things dangling from the tall plants. “I can eat this?” they cried, popping bush beans in their mouths. Their glee was electric and contagious, broadening smiles all around.
The children were begging to eat raw beans, broccoli, even cauliflower, foods many were sampling for the first time. The peppers and tomatoes and tomatillos they’d seen, but cauliflower and broccoli coming from the ground was brand new.
Even here in Sonoma, with the focus on agriculture and farming, many students do not eat healthy food. Even here, garden-grown eating is unfamiliar to many. And it’s not just here, obviously. Cheap processed foods and their link to obesity are slowly burrowing into the national consciousness. From the White House to your house people are talking about a generation of children too far estranged from real food.
Imagine thousands of students sampling new vegetable tastes they have helped grow, and picking them to go into their schools’ salad bars. That’s what’s happening in the Sonoma Valley. Three years ago our main kitchen tool was the box cutter, used to open cartons of processed foods for warming. We’ve moved from selling the school garden idea to administrators to scrounging up materials and getting parents, students, and staff to build planters, obtain plants and show the kids how to plant them. Now, in this new phase, we’re teaching the kids how to use and cook what they’re growing, skills they can use forever at home.
In the three years since we started school gardens at all 11 public schools in Sonoma, the school district has eliminated most trans fats, MSG, soda machines, lots of sodium, and even—beloved by many—chocolate milk. We now offer organic and conventional milk, thanks to regional dairy Clover Stornetta.
We created the program by going out and asking for donations of materials, and everyone we asked gave with excitement and generosity. One local business donated 400 yards of specially mixed organic soil, another gave a composter to each school. Wineries donated their wares for fundraisers, and local nurseries donated uncountable seedlings. Our district food service manager now collaborates with noted chef John McReynolds, who’s Café LaHaye always made everybody’s top ten list and who serves today as the culinary director at Stone Edge Farm. Because of McReynolds’ deep commitment to the School Garden Project, the owner of Stone Edge underwrote development of sophisticated gardens at our two middle schools, and then threw in new industrial stoves for good measure. The Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, which raises funds to supplement education programs eviscerated by steep funding cuts, now raises money for the School Garden Project: Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers, Infineon Raceway, and Rotary International have all given generously.
At Altimira Middle School, principal Will Deeths is aiming to turn his campus into a Magnet Agricultural School. Horticulture teacher Dutch Van Herwynen has repurposed a concrete slab as an instructional and educational farm, even teaching aquaculture with a kid-tended school of tilapia, using the fish scat as fertilizer for nearby plants. And that teaching kitchen on campus that’s been locked up for years? They’re planning a renaissance of culinary curriculum.
“We are busy harvesting and cooking up the final bounty of our winter vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, and Swiss chard,” says Flowery School garden coordinator Chris Everidge. “It is exciting and rewarding to teach the children how to cook these vegetables but even more rewarding to listen to them ask for seconds. When our fifth-graders graduate this year they will know how to grow their own vegetables and how to cook them for themselves and their families. Some parents stop me and tell me how their child asked them to buy a certain vegetable and then they cook it for them. Some of these kids used to refuse to eat vegetables! This is why I am so passionate about our program here at Flowery.”
Remember those salad bars? Afraid kids won’t like them? Forget that. The children enthusiastically embrace new tastes and often take more than they can eat. We worked with Whole Foods Sonoma to raise funds, and they gave us grants to cover the purchase of all of our salad bars. Today the kids crowd around, wielding tongs like the kitchen pros they’re becoming. “I’ll eat that,” they say with aplomb, plates overflowing.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA