School gardens’ aren’t a new idea. Upscale programs, Montessori and Waldorf for example, have been using gardens for hands on learning experience for years. But, until the last decade or two, gardens at public schools were less common especially in the big city schools or schools in lower income districts.
The path to the garden at Martin Luther King Middle School starts in Berkley’s Chez Panisse restaurant. Co-founder Alice Waters helped pioneer the use of fresh, local, in season ingredients nearly forty years ago. Chez Paniise models its menu on the small French eateries whose offerings reflect what is available at the local markets where the chefs shop every day.
Then add in the principal of a local middle school. He was less than happy about a story in the local paper that quoted Ms. Winter’s remarks about the appearance of the grounds around the school. In 1993 Martin Luther King Middle School had nearly one thousand students from widely divergent economic and ethnic backgrounds. The school’s cafeteria had been closed because it was too small to handle the increased enrollment. The student’s could buy microwaved or package items at a location in the parking lot. And the school was nearly surrounded by blacktop.
The principal wrote Ms. Waters a note. She asked him to lunch. She brought up the idea of a school garden. She explained that working with the garden in math, science and English classes. Alice was approaching step ten in the plans while the principal was still trying to figure out how to get rid of the blacktop on top of the acre or so plot of land proposed for the garden.
Within five years of breaking ground the students had worked nearly two hundred tons of organic fertilizer into the garden plot. When Frances Lappe visited the garden in the late nineties she found rows of artichokes, potatoes, tomatillos and kale. As much as possible all the work is scaled to middle schoolers skills. Adults may supervise basic construction, planting and sign painting but the kids do as much as is safe for them to do. The garden recently added a 6,000 gallon tank for rainfall harvesting. One inch of rain yields about 200 gallons of water. At approximately 25 inches of rain annually in the Bay area they can collect just about enough water to fill that tank every year.
The school originally used the renovated cafeteria as a cross between kitchen and class room. In 2001 the class room was moved to a renovated bungalow next to the garden. The students still prepare what they’ve grown and share the results. Approximately on third of the students prepare and share what they’ve grown each week. They sit down at tables with tablecloths, flowers from and garden and share the food they’ve grown and prepared.
Each ninety minute garden class is followed the next day with work on their journals and lessons on ecology, pesticides, composting or growing earthworms. The student’s learn something that too many of us have forgotten or prefer to ignore, where their food comes from. In that little oasis they become aware of the cycle of worm to soil to harvest and back again.
Link to the Edible Schoolyard website.
Information from Hope’s Edge by Francis Lappe and from the school’s website.