As our food systems become ever more globalized, and consumers increasingly disconnected from the land, the social and ecological costs–from groundwater contamination to the demise of small farms, to childhood obesity–are impossible to ignore. To address these multiple issues, renowned chef Alice Waters and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School created The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. This collaborative project encompasses a one-acre garden and kitchen as ”classrooms,” using food both as a tool for education and a vehicle for social change.
A decade ago, Edible Schoolyard founder Alice Waters, head chef of locally famous Chez Panisse restaurant, would pass the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley on her way to work. During a radio interview, she lamented about how public schools in an ostensibly enlightened community like Berkeley could be in such poor condition. She also mentioned how nice it would be to use some of the vacant space for a garden. Then-principal Neil Smith, hearing her remark on the radio, called her and invited her to visit the school. Over lunch, they began discussing an idea she had of creating an educational school garden where students would plant, tend, harvest and prepare food from it.
Smith was intrigued, and contemplated these ideas for a few months, wondering where the money and support for such a project would come from. Within six months, the idea began to take root in the community, with one parent volunteering to spearhead the project, and then community events organized to raise awareness and support for it. In the spring of 1995, the school hosted a design symposium, inviting landscape architects, chefs, gardeners, teachers, and other design professionals to share their visions of what the garden would look like.
With the help of locally-based landscape architects, plans were mapped out to turn a one-acre area of unused asphalt on the school grounds into a garden. Crucial backing came from the superintendent, a man named Jack MacLaughlan, who helped convince the district to give the school the green light to tear up the asphalt and replace it with greenery. The district approved of the plan, especially no financial resources were being asked of it, and because the disused land did not contain classrooms.
Within eighteen months of the plan’s conception, the planting of the first cover began. At the same time, the concept for the kitchen was also being developed. This was intended to help students make connections between food being grown and the process of preparing, cooking and eating food, and how it tied into culture, health, economics, the environment and society. Initially, the idea was to have the school garden supply food to the cafeteria, but this was abandoned as plans for the kitchen developed and it was agreed that the school should not be a production garden, but for educational purposes. Viewing the garden in this way would allow room for experimentation and error, and would prevent the children’s educational experience from being compromised by the pressure of producing food for the cafeteria.
In the beginning, Smith was approached by the Center for Eco-Literacy who offered to fund some aspect of the project, and so a full-time garden teacher was hired. The project was set up as The Edible Schoolyard, a non-profit organization as a partner to the school itself. This was important, as the project was going to continue to need outside funds, but public schools were not allowed to receive funds from foundations, but they could give money to non-profits operating within the school. This program was well-matched to the California State program called A Garden in Every School. The project also received in-kind donations from various sources, ie compost, equipment, trees, etc. Other corporate or public funders gave money for other specific projects.
The educational aspects of the project spans both the formal and informal curricula and tie into ‘unrelated’ subjects such as science, math, social studies, or literature. The decision was made to incorporate both garden and kitchen into the formal curriculum for several reasons. The staff shared the belief that integrating them into core curriculum would enrich the students’ general educational experience. Teachers use the garden and kitchen activities as shared reference points to build on previous learning. As well, specific lessons that meet State standards are created to build on garden and kitchen work, for example, compost and worms, landforms, plant structure and function, and ecology.
Bringing the curriculum into the garden also gives teachers to interact with students in a very different context than the traditional classroom. Interaction is more informal and occurs individually or in small groups. It also allows for more cooperative and complete relationships with teachers, volunteers, and each other, and allows teachers to see different sides of the students they might not see in class (and vice versa). At the same time, garden and kitchen teachers allow the classroom teachers to focus on the lessons and fully participate with the students.
This hands-on learning has double benefits–children remember the lesson because it was an actual experience and not something read out of the textbook, and second, they enjoy the experience, which reinforces the learning.
As the project evolved, it attracted attention. Funds also began to trickle in from local foundations and other donors. Other organizations donated their time and expertise, and structures such as the tool shed or the Ramada (meeting place) were built by groups of university students or volunteers.
Today, the project has grown to include five full-time staff, two Americorps members, community volunteers, and the support, in-kind and financial assistance to a variety of organizations. The design of the garden is oriented towards children, with paths winding through mixed beds of flowers, herbs, berries, and vegetables. Children have some input into what is grown, and where. The garden is unfenced and accessible to neighbors, and children are encouraged to eat out of the garden, such as raspberries, peas and baby carrots.
Meanwhile, two continuous Americorps positions were created and staffed through a partnership with the Bay Area Youth Agency Consortium (a local nonprofit organization).
The aim of the project is to teach new lessons than those that consumer society teaches children about food: that it is cheap, fast, and available 24 hours a day. ‘We’re losing the values we learned from our parents when we sat around our family table, when we lived closer to the land and communicated,’ says Alice Waters. ‘The way children are eating now is teaching them about disposability, about sameness, about fast, cheap and easy. They learn that work is to be avoided, that preparation is drudgery.’ The project aims to cultivate a sense among children of the connections between their local region, local varieties, and how food is grown and eventually arrives on their plates. This ‘seed to table’ concept is reinforced through student participation in all aspects of the cycle of food production ecology, nutrition, the appreciation of meaningful work, quality of life, and of fresh, organic food.
This project is timely amidst media attention on childhood obesity, disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder, urban sprawl, and the junk food industry and its infiltration into schools and the education system. Through the process of growing, cooking, serving and eating their own food, children are learning ‘slow food values’. These values oppose everything the food industry and agribusiness represents–uniformity, convenience, centralization and mass production. Slow food promotes regional identity, quality versus quantity, local versus global, diversity versus homogeneity, and small-versus large-scale.
The Edible Schoolyard holds tours for visitors to see the garden and learn more about the project. Meanwhile, the Berkeley Unified School District has adopted a Food Policy that emphasizes organically grown produce in the district lunch program. It is difficult to say whether or not the Edible Schoolyard can be credited for inspiring other schools to follow its model, but it is clear that this initiative is at the cutting edge of a growing movement to create both ecological and gastronomical literacy in the school system.
Negative and Positive Tips
This case hooks locally into some larger global feedback loops (fed by trends in local communities across North America).
- The centralization of food production=inability for small farmers to compete (rural depopulation and erosion of social fabric)=less infrastructure to support local distribution networks=more centralization of agriculture
- The chemical (fertilizers, pesticides) treadmill in industrial agriculture (more inputs mean more need for inputs)
- Children’s alienation from food culture, land and nature=increasing influence of fast-food industry and corporate food industry’s presence in schools=further alienation by children of food, land and nature
Creating the garden simultaneously addresses a variety of processes :
- Replacing disused land with green space (not only for schoolyard but for the community)
- Reconnecting children to land and food culture, and nature
- Childhood obesity, especially among low-income families
- Creating hands-on educational opportunities
- Fueling a movement to re-localize agriculture
The garden is located where there was once an abandoned lot adjacent to the school. Students and teachers began clearing the land, removing debris, asphalt and weeds in December of 1995. Underneath the asphalt was clay soil, and so a cover crop (probably fava) was planted to enrich the soil to prepare it for gardening. In the early years it was very challenging to grow food in the garden while they were building up the topsoil.
In 1997, a vermiculture and recycling program began, which has been upgraded and improved over time. In 2002, a chicken coop was built, and hens were introduced. They are kept in the coop at night and on weekends, and roam free in the garden during the daytime, so they can fertilize and aerate the soil as well as control the pest snail population. The eggs are used in the kitchen classroom.
The compost area is a series of open piles at various stages of decomposition at one edge of the garden. Kitchen waste is mixed with horse manure (locally donated), leaves, and straw, which are turned by students to aerate them and accelerate decomposition. Compost is added to garden beds. There is also vermicomposting in a four-tier wooden stack of worm bins where food scraps are decomposed. The ‘castings’ are made into a fertilizer for the garden.
There is also an area for seed propagation to take place in another area which houses a propagation table for seedlings. There is also a washstand which is connected to garden hoses for washing produce before bringing it to the kitchen, as well as tabletops for sorting and bundling produce. There are picnic tables, and a common place known as the Ramada (a native North American term for ‘meeting place’) with a roof which supports vines and beans, which is lined in a circular arrangement with straw bales with enough seating for 40 people. Students and teachers gather here at the start and end of every garden class, and the area is also used for meetings or celebrations.
Students are encouraged to ‘forage’ for raspberries and cape gooseberries. For other produce, they need to ask first before tasting, and if something is available in large enough quantities teachers will try to share it with the whole class.
Normally the classes begin with the teacher gathering the students to outline the tasks needed to be done. It may be cleaning the chicken coop, turning the compost piles, harvesting, mulching, seed starting, transplanting, planting, or weeding. Tasks are based on the daily and seasonal needs of the garden. They will get a detailed description of what they must do and the tools necessary. Students choose the activities themselves, which promotes better cooperation from them and gives them a sense of freedom.
After choosing the activities, children then break up into four or five groups to perform the tasks (depending on the work to be done and supervisory help available), where they may be observing something in particular as encouraged by the teacher of the subject in question. Normally there is a Question of the Day, which gives a point of focus for the students. During the work, students may take breaks for water but must get permission of an adult. Approximately twenty minutes before the end of class, the teacher will signal cleanup by ringing a cow bell. Places for the gardening tools, gloves, and other protective clothing are well-organized and clearly labeled, and emphasis is on making sure the students clean and put the tools back in their proper places.
After cleanup, there is a regrouping, or ‘closing circle’, where students are asked to reflect on the days work and give their personal response to the Question of the Day, after which the class is dismissed.
On the same day after the gardening class, students are asked to record their observations in ‘garden journals’. These allow students to document their observations, experiences, or what they have learned. They also provide some anecdotal evidence for teachers about the value of and program as well as potential for future ideas or projects.
Children are involved in as many aspects of the garden as possible, so that they develop a true sense of ownership. While science classes are most often integrated with the garden, other classes are integrated into the garden or kitchen wherever possible in various ways, ie French classes might learn to make crepes, or students might make food from a particular culture being studied in social studies or geography. The teacher of that subject is also present in the kitchen, along with volunteers.
The school attempts to maintain where possible a sense of continuity from season to season and year to year. For example, there is a tradition that outgoing eighth-graders plant the corn at the beginning of the season, and the new incoming class harvests and grills it. Students are exposed to the origins of staple ingredients by grinding wheat and corn to make flour, or by making their own butter.
Over the years, it has been found that the topsoil is growing due to the continuing inputs of compost and fertilizer in the form of mulch, ‘green manure’ from trees and chicken manure. Pests are problematic—but manageable—for certain crops at various times of the year. Common pests include snails, squirrels, and deer. Some plants have deer fences to keep them out and a few leafy crops are covered in certain seasons at night to keep them from being destroyed.
The garden is closed to the public (except for tours) during school hours, but it remains open to the public on the weekends, and it functions as a community space for people who come to relax or stroll along the paths.
The garden produce is chosen by the garden and kitchen staff as what is suitable and seasonally appropriate to the climate of northern California. Some examples of plants grown according to season:
Asparagus, Fava beans, beets, broccoli, carrot, cauliflower, collards, kale, leek, lettuce, mustard, onion, parsnip, pea, potato, radish, spinach, sunchoke, Swiss Chard, turnip, Chayote squash.
Basil, bean (Scarlet Runner), bean (snap, bush, or pole), carrot, cauliflower, celery, corn, cucumber, lettuce (leaf), pepper, pumpkin, squash (summer), squash (winter), sunflower, Swiss Chard, tomato, tomatillos, Cape Gooseberries, pineapple guavas, yacon.
Bean (snap, bush by mid-July), beet, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot, chicory, Chinese cabbage, corn (by mid-July), endive, lettuce, potato, radish, spinach.
Artichoke, Fava beans, cabbage, garlic, lettuce, onion, peas (during November), rhubarb, winter cover crop (including vetch, bell beans, clover), collards, strawberries, perennial fruits/trees (when trees/plants are dormant).
Amaranth is also grown in the garden, and has been part of an activity where children make a sweet dessert made by popping it (a recipe originating in Latin America). It has also been part of history classes on it (and other traditional grains’) basis in civilization as well as their nutritional value and drought-resistant properties.
Kitchen and Cooking Class
Cooking classes are held in the kitchen, a brightly-coloured, renovated bungalow that sits at the southern edge of the garden. Its purpose is to expose students to the relationship between food and life, and to create opportunities to use food and cooking and integrate culture, history, language, ecology, biology, and other curriculum subjects. Kitchen classes prepare a diverse range of seasonal, nutritious dishes (representing a variety of ethnic backgrounds) using ingredients from the garden. The kitchen is also the place of school celebrations and local festivals normally celebrated by the schools. In 2002, a wood fired oven was built, and is used for pizzas and sometimes breads and roasted vegetables.
A full-time instructor is employed in the kitchen, whose role is to conduct classes and oversee food preparation, table setting, eating and cleanup. Normally the class receives with instructions from the teacher and then breaks into three groups. Usually other volunteer adults are present. After the food is prepared, everyone sits down at tables set with flower bouquets from the garden, and eats together.
According to Alice Waters, working in the garden and kitchen is ‘essential education’ which helps children to ‘create community around food’. “We can do without reading and writing,” Waters says, “but we certainly can’t do without eating.” Because of their experience working in the garden, children have begun more open to food they’ve never eaten (see quotes by Colin below), and take recipes and produce home to prepare for their families.
In both the kitchen and garden, environmental responsibility is modeled and practiced wherever possible. Vegetable peels become stock, tin cans are used as cookie cutters, and bottles are used as rolling pins. All kitchen scraps are composted. There is an emphasis on teaching ‘authentic’ cooking skills, and to avoid relying on electric appliances such as food processors, blenders, etc (while making sure they have strict procedures for using knives). Purchasing for kitchen ingredients and supplies not supplied by the garden are organic and carefully sourced through local producers, grocers, suppliers, farmers markets, supermarkets and wholesalers.
A sample lesson on the kitchen curriculum is to ask students to recall something about their relationship, or family relationship to food, and how it relates to their lives. This offers opportunities for insights into the significance of food culture and shows the food culture originating from the various ethnic backgrounds of children. The memories are documented and compiled in a binder kept in the kitchen. Some examples follow (taken from the Edible Schoolyard website):
“One day my Grandma made some peach cobbler. When she made it she burnt it a little bit, but even though she burnt it, it was still good. I thought it was the best peach cobbler I have ever had. I was at my house eating it with my brother, and he even said it was the best peach cobbler he had too. So from that day on every time my Grandma would make peach cobbler I would tell her to overcook it a little bit.” – Christina
“My Mom is from Malaysia. When I visited her family, the best part was the food. One day I was at my Grandmas house, which is across from a market. My Mom gave me some money to go get something to eat. As I crossed the busy street I smelled the strong smells of the curries and the nasty smell of dead fish. I entered the market and saw a dozen venders, each making their specialty. One made noodles; some made fish head curries, and others made fried foods. I sat down in the dirty atmosphere and they took my order. Since everything was cheap I ordered pork sates, plates of noodles, and friend prawns. I ate and ate and was so happy. That was truly the best food experience.” – Byron
“Once I went to my cousin’s home. I say to my cousin ‘do you want help in the kitchen?’ She said ‘yes, there is crab and soup to eat’. Then she put sauce on the crab. It was good food to eat crab.” – James
“I was five years old and the winter snow had just melted. I remember sitting by the window in-between my mother and father. My uncle had just brought in a large pot of stew that I thought was just delicious. My aunt, uncle, grandma and grandpa were all there. That was the last great meal that I ever had with my family. I remember this event so well because just 2 months afterward I had to leave my uncle, aunt, grandma and grandpa forever. That was the last time that I ever saw my whole family together.” – Roland
Scheduling of kitchen and garden into the classroom has evolved over years and has been among the more difficult tasks, because it involves balancing the teachers’ needs to follow school board standards and curricula with pursuing its vision of meeting the needs of the Schoolyard to provide for enrichment, valuable, hands-on learning, and fun.
All students participate in both the kitchen and the garden. All science teachers take their students to the garden, with priority given to sixth graders, who have two 9-week blocks (one block per semester) per year in the garden. Seventh graders have two six-week blocks, and eighth-graders have two 3-week blocks.
Teachers and gardening staff teach 11 classes of the 90-minute blocks in the garden per week. The double block schedule has 15 double periods per week, with the four remaining blocks given to garden maintenance and class preparation.
Whenever possible, teachers will have a specific day of the week as the garden day, so both staff and students can wear appropriate clothing and footwear, as well as creating a routine. Volunteers are also scheduled as much as possible to be with the same class all the time.
In the kitchen, students will go with their social studies teachers (6-7), and some go with electives teachers (7-8). Eleven 90-minute classes are taught in the kitchen every week.
The Edible Schoolyard is Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation (501c3) program. The Chez Panisse Foundation is funded by grants, individual gifts, in-kind donations, and benefit events. Meanwhile, the Edible Schoolyard receives donations of labor through volunteers and two annual Americorps delegates, and in-kind donations from local businesses (the list is found on the Edible Schoolyard’s website).
The School Lunch
Food from the garden is not used for the school lunch. There is a consensus among administrators to keep the two separate, first because they were reluctant to turn the garden into a production farm for the school, and secondly, because the logistics of producing a certain amount of food for a large number of children was not feasible.
The Dining Commons
The 15,000 square foot ‘dining commons’ is a communal dining room intended to be where children, teachers, and community members will eat lunch, in order to further reinforce the food culture of the school. Currently under construction, the building is scheduled to be built by 2006. The dining commons is intended to make lunch a community experience, and it is hoped that adults or parents to eat with kids at lunchtime. The menu will be sourced wherever possible for local, organic produce to go into the lunches.
More generally, while it seems as though linking struggling local farmers with school lunch programs would make practical sense, there are several major obstacles to doing so. First, the National School Lunch Program’s mandate includes providing a market for surplus agricultural commodities, especially beef and dairy products. Second is the logistical challenge of local purchasing and distribution. Perversely, it is cheaper to ship and process food wholesale through established transport routes and chains of suppliers (often involving long-distance travel), and therefore keeps prices at about $ 3 per lunch, because many of the costs of transport and production are externalized. Sourcing local, organically grown supplies would push the price up to $5. This in effect sets up a false dichotomy between those who want healthy food and those who want affordable lunches (so that families would have to choose between them). Several ideas to overcome these barriers is to have a sliding scale, with wealthier families supporting lower-income families’ children’s lunches, community sponsorship of low-income children, or some other federal support.
The School Lunch Initiative as described by Chelsea Chapman, Edible Schoolyard program coordinator:
“In summer 2004, the Berkeley Unified School District, Chez Panisse Foundation, Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, and the Center for Ecoliteracy joined forces and launched the School Lunch Initiative (www.schoollunchintiative.org). This initiative has grown out of both the pioneering work of the Berkeley Food Project, which developed the Food Policy, and the Edible Schoolyard, which has successfully demonstrated the impact of sustainable agriculture education for ten years. The Initiative will provide a healthy, locally grown, and from scratch lunch in all Berkeley public schools, for up to 10,000 students. It will also develop a food and farming based curriculum to enrich studies in math, science, social studies, and language arts by connecting them with hands-on experiences in the garden, kitchen classroom, and lunch room at each school, from kindergarten through high school. The Dining Commons at King Middle School is the pilot facility for a District-wide program that will roll out in each of Berkeley public school over the next ten years, and will provide a national and international model for a sustainable school lunch.”
Founder, Alice Waters has been ranked as one of the world’s ten best chefs. She was the founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant, which has been named the Best Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation and Gourmet magazine. Raised in the 1940s and 50s when American diets were increasingly made up of canned, packaged, processed and fast foods, she had an epiphany while in a fruit and vegetable market in Paris. She realized that food grown locally and eaten fresh was the peoples’ link to their land and biosphere. She wanted to recreate the same experience of the French enjoyment, art, spirit and culture around food, and went back to the States to create Chez Panisse restaurant. In 1996, she created the Chez Panisse Foundation, to support programs which, through various ways, are working to reconnect people with their land and food. Waters has won various awards, such as ‘Excellence in Education’ award from California Senator Barbara Boxer and a U.S. Department of Education ‘Educational Heroes’ award from U.S. Secretary of Education Richard C. Riley.
- Orenstein, Peggy. “Food Fighter,” The New York Times, March 7, 2004.
- Furger, Roberta. “The Edible Schoolyard.” Edutopia Website
- Edible Schoolyard Website
- On-site visits to the Edible Schoolyard, October 2005.