The seeds of health

Pub date April 16, 2008


One warm winter day at Ruus Elementary in south Hayward, Chef Tiffany sweeps a roomful of second-graders into their only cooking class of the year. Before long, they’re shouting out the names of body parts that benefit from fresh veggies: "Eyes!" "Teeth!" "Heart!" And even if Swiss chard elicits a wary silence, the kids already know spinach from bok choy, and Chef Tiffany, known to adults as Tiffany Chenoweth, smoothly transitions from her talking points about leafy greens into the hands-on section of the class (after delivering a squirt of antibacterial gel onto the palms of each child). Meanwhile, out past the bustling blacktop, garden instructor Rachel Harris walks an ethnically diverse group of third graders through the concept of soil enrichment. They reluctantly tear down a lush patch of fava beans that reaches over their heads, pretending to pull nitrogen out of the air (hands up!) and deposit it into the soil to benefit spring crops (hands down!). This is school garden time.

If there’s a downside to teaching children how to nurture a green, nutritious school garden, it’s hard to fathom. The list of touted benefits is lengthy: students reap fresh air and physical exercise, hands-on participation, awareness of the natural environment, so called "school bonding," and an unprecedented taste for raw spinach. For school faculty, there are welcome breaks in the classroom regimen, an engaging outlet for unruly pupils, and a bridge to involvement with volunteers in the community. And parents get to share skills and experience, from farm expertise to carpentry, that once felt irrelevant to an academic setting.

But in an educational realm where standards reign supreme, the benefits of gardens can be tough to quantify. In promotional literature, the Network for a Healthy California, a funder of Hayward Unified School District’s program, stresses connections that reflect common sense, like the idea that making fresh vegetables readily accessible to low-income families will reduce the growing rate of obesity. But the future of garden instruction in the long term, when inroads against sprawling ills like obesity might become broadly measurable, is unpredictable when grants and appropriations change from year to year. Even in the Bay Area, where strawberry patches and kale flourish beside asphalt schoolyards, garden educators continually scramble to afford basic supplies, sometimes spending more time cultivating donors than mulching vegetables.

That’s how it often feels to Miriam Feiner, program director for the Willie Brown Jr. Academy Garden. "We’re pretty much our own two-person nonprofit," Feiner says of herself and assistant Joti Levy at an Arbor Day work party on March 8, where dozens of native seedlings — coffeeberry, sticky monkey flower, and other species attractive to bees — awaited planting on a weedy slope.

The duo’s fundraising efforts have been rewarded with sizable grants from SF Environment’s Environmental Justice Grant Program and Alec Shaw of the Shaw Fund, as well as partnerships with San Francisco Beautiful and Friends of the Urban Forest.

Even more rewarding though, Feiner says, weekly garden-based classes at Willie Brown have students literally begging for kale. But she concedes that ultimately the current model, which is based on constant fundraising, is "not sustainable."

Difficulties in funding aside, people like Abby Jaramillo, the youthful director of San Francisco nonprofit Urban Sprouts, will gladly explain why it’s important to find a way to sustain such programs. When Jaramillo and her team took over the Excelsior Garden, shared by the June Jordan School for Equity and Excelsior Middle School, she said she was "up to her armpits in fennel."

But the overgrown herbs weren’t the only sign of disrepair. "It was a struggling middle school desperately in need of something that would make the students have a stake," she said. Describing the community’s "food environment," a term of art in nutrition education, she listed liquor store fare and junk food as the most prevalent options. Five years and six new school gardens later, Jaramillo thinks school administrators and teachers are genuinely on board with Urban Sprouts, whose mission is to serve low-income youth in San Francisco. "When the kids come outside; they are leaders, teaching each other how to plant," she says. "We need to make the garden a core, that will remain here and make a difference."

Whether that happens depends on whether garden education becomes institutionalized, not just a supplemental benefit reliant on the assiduousness of leaders like Jaramillo and Feiner. "My dream," Jaramillo says, "is that it would be like gym." That is to say, an expected feature of the precollege landscape. I asked her if there were models for this kind of integration. She, and everyone else I spoke with, pointed to the Edible Schoolyard, the celebrated collaboration between local-food pioneer Alice Waters and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. At the Schoolyard, a beneficiary of the Chez Panisse foundation, the perpetual cycle of seasons meshes with the academic year as rising eighth graders ceremonially plant corn for incoming sixth graders to harvest in the fall, suggesting a garden practice that is truly rooted in the school experience.

According to the San Francisco Unified School District, out of 104 K-12 school sites in the city, 36 maintain "green schoolyards," with 45 new gardens planned over the next four years. Statewide, $10.8 million from Sacramento was awarded in the form of California Instructional School Garden Program grants in October. It’s not nearly enough to fulfill the California Department of Education’s stated goal of "a garden in every school." But as Jordan students prepare to sow enough lettuce to provide the entire school with a lunch salad for one day, Jaramillo is hopeful that showing even a small percentage of kids where food comes from will have a lasting effect, with lessons about healthy eating rippling out through them to their families and into the community.

With the infrastructure of garden education still in its founding stages, assessing its efficacy poses a conundrum. The kind of life-changing transformations that green schoolyard proponents hope for might not be apparent in the short term, while slashed budgets threaten to endanger the longevity of even the most lovingly planted plots. Still, educators like Harris aren’t daunted by the relative nonstandardization of their field. She’s seen the results first-hand — like the student at a Hayward school barbecue who traded a Butterfinger for a second helping of grilled zucchini. After our interview, as Harris left the grocery store where she’ll teach her class to distinguish between processed and fresh food, a Ruus student in pigtails greeted her excitedly. "Miss Rachel!" she cried, throwing her head back with a wide grin. "I like garden!"