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Natural Awakenings National

The Edible Schoolyard: Revolutionizing Classes and Cuisine Across America

Aug 01, 2008 03:00AM ● By Ann Simms

Alice Waters’ reverence for ‘slow food’ is apparent in Chez Panisse, the flagship restaurant she opened in 1971 in Berkeley, California. Chez Panisse uses only quality ingredients, pays farmers a living wage, and cooks with seasonal fruits and vegetables; its roster of appreciative regulars includes Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama.

Waters also has a strong love of teaching. After completing coursework at the Montessori Institute in London in 1969, she planned a career in education before changing direction to pursue her interests in food and hospitality. In 1996, she married all her passions by establishing the Chez Panisse Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating children about food, health and the environment.

“We started [the Foundation] largely out of concern that young people increasingly are isolated from the land and deprived of the joys and responsibilities it teaches,” Waters explains.

Seeds of Sustainability

The Foundation’s first project focused on an ugly, unused parking lot at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, in Berkeley. After a productive tête-à-tête with the school’s principal, Waters transformed the lot with 100 pounds of fresh compost and an acre’s worth of fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and ornamentals. Dubbed the ‘Edible Schoolyard’, this organic garden became the outdoor counterpart to an indoor kitchen classroom, converted from an unused cafeteria. In the kitchen, students eat the fruits and veggies they sow, harvest and bake themselves.

The Edible Schoolyard’s botany and culinary classes are fully integrated into the school’s traditional academic curriculum. Students learn about photosynthesis by observing plant leaves in the garden and studying chemical formulas in their textbooks. After getting their hands dirty in the garden and then cleaning up for work in the kitchen, they record their observations in a journal.

According to a two-year study of the Edible Schoolyard by J. Michael Murphy, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, the program is shrinking students’ waistlines, while increasing their understanding of food and the environment. Murphy observes that the students, “are more enthusiastic about attending school, make better grades, eat healthier food due to wiser food choices, and become more knowledgeable about natural processes.”

Multiplying Eco-literacy

The sown schoolyard concept is gradually gaining national momentum. Each year, more than 1,000 educators, health professionals, community advocates and legislators visit the Edible Schoolyard. In Berkeley, every public school boasts a garden-kitchen combo, and an estimated 3,000 school gardens have sprouted up throughout California. Across the country, even in colder climates where most gardens hibernate during the winter, schools are using greenhouses and root cellars to cultivate crops.

Chez Panisse Foundation is also helping create an Edible Schoolyard affiliate site at Samuel J. Green Charter Middle School in New Orleans, a school that has become a beacon of promise in a neighborhood still struggling to rebuild from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. “We hope to renew New Orleans one okra plant and one child at a time,” says Principal Tony Recasner.

Waters stresses that the strength of the Edible Schoolyard program is not only the fact that it can be replicated, but its ability to inspire replication, noting that garden-based programs should be grounded in the seasonality, cultures and native flora and fauna of their specific locales. Enjoyment and wonder are key.

“Learning is supposed to be a pleasure, and a food-centered curriculum is a way to reach kids in a way that is truly pleasurable,” Waters sums up. “While they are touching, and smelling, and tasting, so much information floods in—because they are using all their senses. What better way to learn about geography than by combining 27 aromatic spices to make an Indian curry?

“What we are calling for is a revolution in public education—a real Delicious Revolution. When the hearts and minds of our children are captured by a school lunch curriculum, enriched with experience in the garden, sustainability will become the lens through which they see the world.”

For more information about the Edible Schoolyard, creating garden-based environmental education programs, plus links and resources that support slow food and healthy school lunches, visit and See, which partners with Chez Panisse Foundation in Berkeley, for information about the Rethinking School Lunch initiative, a planning framework for improving school lunch programs and nutrition education and teaching ecological knowledge. 

Primary Source: (Ann Sims)

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