Visitors won’t find many straight rows in the organic garden at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California. Sometimes the beds resemble hearts, eyes, or question marks. At the moment, red-stalked chard is poking through the rich, black compost in a patch shaped like a rainbow. And then there’s the glorified drainage ditch, dubbed the “Middle River,” that laughing, muddy students carved right down the center of their one-acre city plot. As he looks around, Kelsey Siegel, the young teacher in charge of the garden, can’t help but smile. “So many of the youth we work with have grown up in front of TV and video games; they haven’t really had this experience of playing in the mud and water,” he notes. The schoolyard farm “fills in something that’s missing in their lives.”
Before they planted their bountiful garden five years ago with the help of acclaimed chef Alice Waters, few of the students at this dilapidated, multicultural Northern California school had even tasted chard or vine-ripened tomatoes, let alone raised them from seedlings. Teachers worried that some children weren’t eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables at home, and the school wasn’t much help either: Like many state campuses, King replaced its hot-meal cafeteria years ago with a more cost-effective outdoor “snack shack,” offering a less-than-farm-fresh lunch menu of bulbous corn dogs, limp hamburgers, and bags of bright orange nachos.
For Waters, the founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant, the thought of children having to rely on such reheated junk—right in her own backyard—was too much to stomach. The petite, visionary woman is widely regarded as the Julia Child of organic cuisine in America, the person who’s taught millions the joy of cooking simple dishes with locally grown, chemical-free produce. Like most baby boomers, Waters remembers poking at mystery food in her school cafeteria as a kid. But today, she says, the incursion of vending machines and fast food into America’s schools has become downright sinister. “What is it, one in three kids is overweight now? It’s just horrifying,” she laments, sipping mineral water at a quiet table downstairs in her hugely popular arts-and-crafts style restaurant, about a mile from the King campus. “I don’t know what has to happen before we wake up.”
The way Waters sees it, every public school in America, from preschool through college, ought to have a food-producing yard just like King’s. And she’s not alone. Four years ago, California’s state superintendent of public instruction, Delaine Eastin, launched an unusual initiative, funded by a variety of state agencies, to link nutrition education and other studies with gardens in each of the state’s 8,000 public schools. To date, about 1,600 of them have broken ground on such plots. Across the country, the Vermont-based National Gardening Association estimates that about 10,000 American schools have active outdoor gardens, ranging from small vegetable patches to expansive wildflower habitats for butterflies. “These are experiments,” Waters says, “that we should be discussing as a community and as a nation. It should be like physical education: A decision was made, and we built gyms and tracks and bought PE equipment and hired teachers.” In the same way, she says, “we have to decide that it’s important for our children to be well-fed and nurtured. I’m not talking about anything fancy. I’m talking about a bowl of soup or a cup of tea.”
A former preschool teacher, Waters got the idea for installing a garden at King about eight years ago while driving by the run-down middle school every day on her way to work. Waters already had witnessed the positive psychological effect an organic farming project had on prison inmates at the San Francisco County Jail; her restaurant buys produce grown by proud gardeners there. As she looked at the school’s tired buildings, she began to wonder what the King grounds might look like if they, too, were covered by edible landscaping—grape arbors, groves of oranges and lemons, herb and vegetable patches—producing organic food that could be cooked and eaten right on campus.
For many of King’s faculty members, the idea was a vision of Eden. Science teachers loved the concept of using the garden to illustrate state-mandated lessons on ecology and topography. Others were drawn to its potential for building community in a relatively low-income school, where 900 students speak some 22 languages. “The 6th grade teachers, especially, were immediately drawn to this idea,” recalls Beth Sonnenberg, a math and science instructor. “They saw the garden as a way of making the school feel smaller.”
In 1994, Waters founded the nonprofit Edible Schoolyard organization and raised about $10,000 in start-up funds for the project. A year later, the organization broke ground for the garden in an abandoned school parking lot. Today, the plot is a bright green, bee-filled oasis in an otherwise drab landscape of mustard-colored, 1920s-era buildings supported by a handful of foundations and the district. Rosemary with bright blue flowers cascades over the concrete retaining walls, round cabbages dot the richly composted soil, and budding fruit trees rustle in the morning breeze. In the center of the garden stands a twig gazebo where children and teachers—who work alongside the kids—gather at the beginning of each farming session to divvy up the various chores.
On this particular morning in early March, the tasks include planting, weeding, hoeing, and showing the garden off to some Spanish-speaking 2nd graders visiting from nearby Thousand Oaks Elementary School. When the 6th graders have finished working, they return their tools and boots to the tidy shed and sit down on hay bales inside the gazebo for a closing exercise. Asked about his favorite part of the session, one soft-spoken African American student volunteers that he enjoyed taking the little kids around. Another 6th grader triumphantly waves a white bucket. “We hunted for snails!” she shouts, showing off her slimy catch to admiring friends.
Such enthusiasm for the garden and its wriggly creatures is hardly unusual, observes Siegel, who works full time at the Edible Schoolyard, planning the crops and running the outdoor effort with the help of three part-time assistants and about 20 volunteers. “I’m not saying every child comes out of here wanting to be a gardener,” he says, “but they definitely enjoy being out here.” Sometimes he will send extra produce home with a needy child, and the school hosts occasional harvest giveaway days for parents and neighbors on its front sidewalk. But the garden’s greatest gift, he says, is the sense of peace it seems to give the children. “They need the physical activity and companionship, and they get that while they’re working,” Siegel explains. “The teachers especially like it because usually they don’t really get to talk with their kids.”
To understand the garden in all its seasons, each class spends one 90-minute period a week out there for eight- to 10-week blocks in fall, winter, or spring. (There’s also a summer school session.) In the off seasons, they rotate to the Edible Schoolyard kitchen, a warm, newly renovated work space with mango- colored walls, a used eight-burner professional range, and stainless steel work tables donated by Waters’ culinary friends and others in the community.
As with the garden, teachers make a special effort to incorporate culinary activities into their weekly lesson plans, with about half attending voluntary monthly staff development meetings to get new ideas. Foreign language students, for example, might be assigned to stir up a rich caldo de pollo, or chicken stew, from a recipe written in Spanish, while history classes might spend a period hand grinding wheat and then cooking up unleavened bread like that eaten in biblical times.
Even Richard Silberg, the school’s slender, bearded drama teacher, has found a way to involve his classes in the kitchen. Once his students baked fortune cookies containing quotes from Shakespeare. On a day in March, his 8th graders are busy chopping garlic and fresh herbs from the garden to make Italian- inspired hors d’oeuvres, which they’ll have to “sell” in their own videotaped infomercials. “One would think that drama would be the hardest class to integrate into the kitchen,” he says with a grin, “but in many ways it’s the easiest. Actors love to eat.”
Perhaps the most important thing King students learn from the garden and kitchen is how delicious fresh fruits and vegetables really can be—and how it’s possible to keep on eating healthful food for the rest of their lives. Esther Cook, the full-time cooking instructor who teaches recipes and manages the kitchen with the help of two assistants, says the secret is to give the kids some control over the process. “That chard may come in from the garden with dirt on it, maybe even a snail or two,” she explains, “but once the students wash it and chop it and get some sort of technique going—when there’s some sort of pride in what they’ve done—all of a sudden chard is the best thing in the world and woe to anybody who insults it. I’ve had kids look me right in the face and say: ‘I wouldn’t eat this if somebody made it for me. But because I made it, I’ll eat it.’ ”
Waters, who stops by the garden most days, notes that King students recently voted the Edible Schoolyard their second-favorite class on campus, just after PE. She’s proud of the fact—but not surprised. “With these kids, it’s almost as if they’ve been starved,” she observes. “With one in two families divorced, both parents working, these children are not participating in that civilizing ritual of eating together at home. They don’t know about passing the peas and ‘thank you’ and ‘What went on at school today?’ ” In its own small way, Waters says, the Edible Schoolyard provides children with a taste of the better things in life. “It’s a wonderful beginning,” she says. And if they have a little muddy fun in the process, so much the better.
Theresa Johnston is a free-lance writer based in Palo Alto, California.