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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: The Edible Schoolyard

Reading, writing, planting, composting, slicing, and dicing.

by Paul Rauber

The garden is abuzz with 15 sixth-graders in motion. Some harvest heirloom tomatoes, others fell a giant sunflower, hunt for pre-zeppelin zucchini, and run to offer a visitor purple beans and rare South American greens.

A tow-headed kid named Mathias obsessively prunes a hedge to make room for espaliered fruit trees. Another with muddy boots emerges triumphant from a trench: "I cleaned out the irrigation ditch!" At the hub of the activity is instructor Ene Osteraas-Constable, talking about the wide range of tomato varieties. "Some people think this one has gone bad because of the stripes," she says, holding up a tiger stripe. "I think it's pretty!" a pigtailed girl calls out. "What about that brown kind?" asks another. "It looked nasty, but it tasted good."

Welcome to the Edible Schoolyard project, a radical alternative to the fast-food junk that most schoolchildren now eat for lunch. On any given day, 35 percent of elementary schoolkids eat no fruit, 20 percent don't touch a vegetable, and many of those who do come no closer than french fries. A shocking 90 percent consume fat above the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommended level, and 27 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are obese. Many schools have abandoned school lunch programs altogether, turning them over to fast-food chains. Prior to the establishment of the Edible Schoolyard's one-acre garden, the most popular items on Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School's lunch menu were the Taco Bell Fiesta Burrito and the Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza.

The tide began to turn with an offhand remark to a reporter by Alice Waters, founder of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant and apostle of organic produce and seasonal cooking, about the run-down appearance of the school she passed every day on the way to work. As a result, Principal Neil Smith invited her to pay the school a visit.

"I went around at lunchtime and asked the kids what they ate," says Waters. "A good third of them didn't eat anything. Others got something from the fast-food concession, and would just walk over to the garbage can and dump all the tomatoes and pickles. And no wonder—who'd want to eat that tired tomato anyway? It was pretty shocking. I thought, 'We've got a lot of work to do.' "

And so the Edible Schoolyard was born. "I didn't want just a garden," says Waters. "Lots of schools have gardens. I wanted it to be a garden that relates to what the children are eating at lunch. For me, the most neglected schoolroom is the lunchroom." Luckily, the school was blessed with a vacant lot, a large albeit defunct cafeteria kitchen, and bountiful community enthusiasm. Last year, 500 students helped spread more than 20 tons of compost, local businesses donated ovens and an industrial dishwasher, and community volunteers helped the kids build an adobe pizza oven. By this summer, both garden and kitchen were up and running. The garden goes far beyond peas and carrots, boasting obscure greens like mache, rocket, and mizuna, as well as bok choy, fava beans, countless varieties of tomatoes, and even a special section of "lost crops of the Incas," meant to complement a social-studies-class investigation into that culture.

It's almost noon, so the kids harvest vegetables, herbs, and flowers to decorate the table. They bear their bounty to the renovated kitchen, don aprons, and set to work washing vegetables, chopping onions and garlic, and learning how to make a frittata from 15-year-veteran line chef Esther Cook. The kids accidentally burn the butter for sautéing the vegetables and want to throw it out. "Does it taste okay?" Cook asks. "Then we'll just call it brown butter."

Half an hour later, a simple but delicious lunch emerges. The old tables are covered with red-and-white-checked tablecloths and cheap but colorful enamel dishes from Chinatown, and we sit down to garlic bread with herbs, a gorgeous frittata of multicolored tomatoes, zucchini, onions, and potatoes, bowls of sweet cherry tomatoes to munch on, and a special iced tea that the kids concocted themselves. Joining us is Rashid, the school's custodian. "This is great!" he beams. "They're gonna give that restaurant up the street [Chez Panisse] a run for its money."

Waters won't mind. "Kids today are bombarded with a pop culture that teaches redemption through buying things," she says. "School gardens, on the other hand, teach redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, the lasting, the things that money can't buy: the things that matter most of all if we are going to lead sane, healthy, and sustainable lives."

Waters' dream is that the Edible Schoolyard will eventually supply the raw materials for the students themselves to transform into delicious, nutritious lunches for their classmates every day, and which can be integrated into many aspects of the curriculum. "Our vision is to have a school in a garden," says teacher Osteraas-Constable, "not just a garden in a school."

Remarkably, the USDA has similar (if less ambitious) dreams for schools all over the country. Its "Team Nutrition" project seeks to involve parents and chefs in school lunch programs, with an emphasis on using seasonal recipes and local farmers' markets, or at least meeting current dietary guidelines—a test few schools manage to pass. The agency hardly envisions sixth-graders cooking calzone with organic vegetables they grew themselves; it's thinking about reducing the fat in potato wedges and lowering the sugar content of frozen cherries. What the Edible Schoolyard shows is that learning doesn't have to stop at lunchtime; kids can take care of the earth and themselves, and have fun doing it.

Get in touch with the Edible Schoolyard at 1781 Rose St., Berkeley, CA 94703; (510) 558-1335. For more about Team Nutrition, contact the USDA at 3101 Park Center Dr., Room 802, Alexandria, VA 22302; (703) 305-1624;

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