In 2007, I was asked to join the Garden School Foundation Board, which manages the 24th Street School Garden, a ¾ acre LAUSD elementary school garden in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. The garden had been in existence for close to 3 years and had turned an acre of hot sizzling blacktop, up for resurfacing, where the children used to play and faculty park their cars, into a growing, teaching garden for this underserved community and underachieved student population. Since then, the garden has been growing, growing, growing into a vibrant, vital curriculum-based teaching center, and now, footprint for 4 new upcoming school garden sites.
Progress has been slow, gradual, but steady, and with a dedicated board, passionate Director, and her creative paid and voluntary staff on the ground, GSF seems to be exploding and advancing toward its goal of “providing an interdisciplinary program of education through garden based learning in outdoor living classrooms”
The tagline has always been: “turning asphalt into ecosystems” and the standards based lessons and cooking classes have been brilliant in giving these often, underserved and underprovided for kids, those tools.
In 2008, I had the opportunity to develop the “Herb Project” there, with Nat Zappia, who was then Director, and is now on our GSF board. We led a selection of the top, most motivated 5th graders, in a program of learning, through the study of herbs; building raised beds, planting and growing seedlings and seeds, studying herb origins and botanical names, cooking and creating recipes and then, sitting down together at a set table to share in the bounty of their labors and lessons.
Each child was given a journal at the beginning of the session, without which they couldn’t attend the class, and they were required to record botanical names and observed notes from our plant discovery throughout the year, while taping herb cuttings on each page for identification and “study”. I brought in Restaurant and Bakery owners who were clients of mine, to talk about the food on their menu, the life of a restaurateur and the business of food. We grew and studied the herbs of each restaurant and “sold” them at the end of the year, in exchanges for goodies from their restaurant and bakery fare. I gave them packaging classes where they created designs and packaging for the herbs that they were growing, so they would be “marketable” to their customers. I brought in local artisan foods for them to see and taste and become inspired by in their creativity. They were on fire with creativity!
They took home plastic buckets to bring back, with kitchen scraps, to fuel the garden’s compost pile, and conversations around nutrition and what’s on the table at night and for breakfast.
At the end of each Herb Project session, I would set a beautiful table in front of the shed in the garden, with cotton tablecloth and napkins, colored plastic cups and silverware, ball jars filled with garden flowers and baskets of fresh pastry from one of my clients. We would all cook together at the opposite outdoor table, making herbed scrambled eggs and herbed sautéed potatoes for our meal and for showing off their egg cracking skills what they’d grown in the garden.
Invariably, each time, when napkins were placed on laps and students waiting eagerly for their garden breakfast meal, one of them would blurt out, “this is just like the rich; like the rich in a restaurant”; I would then say, “isn’t it great that we don’t have to be rich to eat this way? That we ARE rich; rich in food and ourselves?” And another student would always shout out, “we are rich, we are rich, we are rich in vegetables”.
Now the classes in the garden teach every student in the school and give them cooking, botany, science and math, literature, spelling and simple garden pleasures backed with lessons in food security and environmental awareness. And they are learning with joy, and they feel rich!