Reading, Writing and Replanting

Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard remains undaunted by skeptics.

It’s a stunningly beautiful February morning in Berkeley, and the students in Katherine Anderson Schaaf‘s sixth-grade math and science class are about to strike a blow for all schoolchildren who have ever lamented being cooped up indoors when the weather outside is truly fine. On this particular morning, they will spend an hour and a half hard at work in a garden located on school grounds — exchanging their pencils and notebooks for shovels and rubber boots. They’ll turn the soil. They’ll feed the chickens. They’ll get their hands dirty.

But what, exactly, are these students at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School learning in that garden? And, with public schools all across the country stretched to their limits — and an educational climate that is placing more and more of a premium on standardized test scores — are these types of bucolic chores really an appropriate use of class time?

The teachers at King certainly seem to think so.

“I seldom see a kid who’s not happy in the garden — who’s not engaged,” says Schaaf, the math/science teacher who sees these students in a regular classroom setting the other four days of the week. Schaaf, like many of her colleagues, credits the program with generating in her students an excitement for learning and, really, with opening up a new world for them. “A lot of these kids never touched dirt,” she explains. “They don’t garden. They don’t have chickens and things.”

Schaaf’s students are participants in the Edible Schoolyard, a nationally acclaimed program that plucks the 935 kids at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School out of the traditional classroom setting and places them, variously, in a strawberry patch or in front of a hot stove. The project is the brainchild of Alice Waters, perhaps the most famous chef in America who has never had her own cooking show. Funded by Waters’ nonprofit Chez Panisse Foundation, the Edible Schoolyard has one overarching goal: to change the basic relationship that these Berkeley adolescents have with the food they eat.

Once a week these sixth graders head out toward the garden and the kitchen facilities that sit behind the main school building. Their regular classroom teacher is present for, and often participates in, the day’s activities, but the Edible Schoolyard has its own staff of teachers — an impressive collection of chefs and farming gurus — who develop the curriculum and facilitate each lesson. Garden classes might start with a horticultural lesson about one of the vegetables that’s in season, and then the students are broken up into groups where they learn about and perform a variety of agricultural tasks — grafting a tree, for instance, or repotting seedlings. During kitchen classes, the students take the literal fruits of their labor and, under the supervision of a master chef, learn how to cook gourmet meals from scratch. And then they eat.

The idea is at its core a simple one: If you take these young people through each step of the process by which their food is produced — if you teach them about seasonality and cover crops and how to use a mortar and pestle — you’ll be giving them a much richer understanding of their environment and of the whole human experience. Not only that, but you’ll be equipping them, in this time of rampant childhood obesity, to make better decisions around food as they head into their adult lives.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. And there does seem to be some concrete evidence, including a soon-to-be-released study done by the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley, which shows that the kids who go through the Edible Schoolyard program end up acquiring a significant amount of knowledge about fresh food and nutrition.

But many of the Edible Schoolyard’s other benefits are more difficult to quantify, leaving it vulnerable to naysayers. Most notably, the program was savaged in the January issue of The Atlantic, in a piece by Caitlin Flanagan entitled “Cultivating Failure.”

Flanagan’s criticism of the program can be boiled down thusly: It’s irresponsible to use the public school system’s limited resources to have students frolicking around in a garden — even if this might be more “engaging” than traditional academic instruction — when they are, as a group, largely failing to meet the state’s basic math and language arts standards. And, perhaps more provocatively, she also argues that there’s something downright offensive about having the Bay Area’s large Hispanic student population “learn the pleasure of physical work,” as Waters has asserted, when so many of their parents have brought them to this country for the very purpose of escaping a life of manual labor. Flanagan pegs the whole program as a case where a political agenda — in this instance the entire Slow Food movement, led by Waters, its grand dame — is doing students a real disservice.

It’s only natural for the skeptic to question whether or not the Edible Schoolyard curriculum works at all — that is to say whether or not these twelve- and thirteen-year-olds will really buy into it. Given the reputation this younger generation has garnered for short attention spans, with their steady supply of text messages and video games, is it really reasonable to think that a few roosters and a bunch of plants could keep them engaged — even entertained? And the deeper question, of course — not just for Flanagan, but for any parents who would consider sending their children to King — is whether or not these kids are being properly educated in the end.

This morning’s mini-lesson on the reproductive cycle of mushrooms gets off to a bit of a sluggish start, the most vigorous student contribution an “Eww, that’s disgusting!” from one of the girls as an oyster mushroom gets passed around. But then the jobs get divvied up and suddenly even the kids with the “too-cool-for-school” vibe shake it off. As the kids get to work, there’s a buzz of excited chatter (about a disgusting spider someone had seen, about a teacher that everyone likes or doesn’t like), but they’re also doing everything they’re supposed to do — digging, trimming, or whatever.

Part of what makes these classes fun for the kids seems obvious — the students are outdoors, they’re allowed to talk, and their scruffy-jeans-clad garden teachers are young and energetic and sufficiently hip. They’re not going to have to take a test on the day’s lesson. But beyond all this, for some of the students there does actually seem to be, at times, a genuine sense of wonder and adventure.

“Look at all the rocks we found,” exclaims one boisterous Asian-American kid, part of a group of students helping to redesign an unused section of the garden. The boy stabs his shovel into the earth, then strains to lift up a large chunk of rubble so that everyone can see. He does a proud little strut. “This is history!”

History indeed. As the story goes, back in 1994 Alice Waters made an offhand comment to a reporter about how blighted the school grounds at King looked, having passed the school regularly during her walks from nearby Chez Panisse. When Neil Smith, the principal at the school at that time, read what Waters had said, he decided to contact her and see if she’d be willing to help improve the situation. The Edible Schoolyard was born out of that conversation.

But, as program director Marsha Guerrero explains, “Gardens take a long time. They don’t happen overnight. We started with broken asphalt.”

Planning for the new project began in earnest in 1995. By the year after that the first groups of students had begun working in the garden, and from there both the physical garden and the program as a whole gradually expanded.

Now, the one-acre “interactive garden classroom,” as the program’s web site describes it, is one of the prettier plots of land you’ll find in North Berkeley, with its lush-even-in-winter greenery, hand-painted signs, and view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. The Edible Schoolyard has garnered national acclaim, as educators from all over the country visit the site each month, hoping to emulate it in their own respective cities — in 2006 the Chez Panisse Foundation even launched an affiliate program in New Orleans. And certainly in the Bay Area, the idea of school gardens has become increasingly popular, in large part due to the influence of Waters and the Edible Schoolyard.

In a certain sense, the prestige of the program and the larger-than-life personality of Waters herself made the Edible Schoolyard the perfect target for Flanagan, who has made a career for herself as a contrarian and a killer of sacred cows. Here in the Bay Area, there was no shortage of responses to the Atlantic piece after it was published. An editor at SFoodie quickly dubbed Flanagan “the Sarah Palin of food politics,” and there was a flurry of retorts posted on various eco- and Slow Food-friendly web sites, most of which dismissed her claims outright. One particularly strident commenter on an article on said that she would, in fact, rather raise up a generation of math-ignorant gardeners than math experts who don’t care about agriculture. Even taken in context, this seems faintly ridiculous.

The truth of the matter is that California is in a crisis right now with its failure to equip so many of its students with the basic skills that they’ll need to go on to college and become successful members of society. Though some educators may question the extent to which standardized test scores are the best measure of a student’s abilities, there’s still no getting around this undeniable fact — and the statistics for the state’s African-American and Latino students are especially grim.

King isn’t one of the most egregious examples in the Bay Area, but it certainly is no exception either. According to the school’s 2009 STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) results, 26 percent of the school’s African-American students tested at the proficient level or higher for English language arts, and only 17 percent were proficient in mathematics. The numbers for the school’s Hispanic population aren’t much better: 30 percent and 28 percent tested to be at least proficient in English language arts and mathematics, respectively. All of these numbers fall below the state average and lag far behind the school’s white students — 87 percent and 77 percent of whom scored at least at the proficient level in language arts and math, respectively — and its Asian students, of whom 51 percent attained proficiency in language arts and 49 percent in math.

“Here is the essential question we must ask about the school gardens,” Flanagan says. “What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs — so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed — improves a child’s chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future?”

Flanagan claims that there are no studies that offer credible support for this position and, well, it appears that she may be right. Benjamin Eichorn is an assistant garden teacher with Edible Schoolyard who actually wrote his college thesis on the potential of school gardens to increase student academic achievement. But even he concedes that we’re a long way off from seeing that kind of study come to fruition, what with the challenges of finding a large enough sample size and different schools that are close enough to being demographically identical. According to Eichorn, most of the evidence that exists that working in the garden has helped improve specific students’ academic performance is strictly anecdotal — and even that anecdotal evidence has yet to be compiled in any kind of systematic way.

Nevertheless, Eichorn says plenty of studies have shown that hands-on learning that engages all of a student’s senses is an effective approach to education — whether it takes place in the context of a garden or some other kind of project. In the four years that Eichorn has been with the program, he’s become convinced that it really does work. What’s more, he says, it’s the kids who are emotionally or developmentally challenged who receive the greatest benefit from the kind of instruction offered at the Edible Schoolyard.

“Privileged kids, they’ve got access to terrific camps,” Eichorn said. “They’re going to the mountains to learn about nature that way. Kids that don’t have access to that stuff, their world is really small … and when I’m working with one to four kids in a special-ed class, I can reach them. I can bring learning to life for them.”

For Flanagan, however, the test scores speak for themselves. She argues that the only logical response to the achievement gap is to strip away any program that isn’t directly contributing to boosting those underperforming students’ scores. What rationale would there be, then, for keeping the Edible Schoolyard when there’s little evidence that it has been successful on that count?

Shaina Robbins, the program coordinator, says she would reframe the question: “Is art not important for a kid to have? Is gym not important for a kid to have? Is music not important? If you don’t think those things are important, then I can totally see how you wouldn’t feel like a garden and kitchen program would be important. Absolutely. But for me, and for every staff member in this program, we all feel like all of those things are of the utmost importance.”

Robbins and other supporters of school gardens also point to the country’s alarming rates of childhood obesity, with one in three children either overweight or obese — a public health crisis that Michelle Obama recently declared her top policy priority. Of course, the First Lady last year started a much-publicized vegetable garden on the White House lawn — a fact not lost on supporters of this movement. Indeed, it would appear that the potential to make some inroads on the eating habits of young adolescents might be reason enough for programs like the Edible Schoolyard to exist.

Like Robbins, the principal at King, Jason Lustig, stresses the Berkeley school district’s emphasis on educating the “whole child,” as opposed to worrying about those two subjects that are tested at the exclusion of everything else. If you were to take that position to its extreme, Lustig points out, you would have to drop not just the garden and kitchen program, but also science and history and any other subject that isn’t tested specifically — an approach that he doesn’t think has been effective for the schools that have implemented it.

“I think the drudgery, nationally, of having all of these schools, from the elementary level on, hammering English and math nonstop is really taking its toll,” Lustig said. “You see it in the dropout numbers … and I think it’s a real misinterpretation of what we were trying to get at with the standards-based approach.”

Flanagan’s assumption is that, in order for the Edible Schoolyard program to exist, basic math and reading instruction must be sacrificed — a claim that Lustig adamantly denies. If anything, he says, because of the way the school bundles math and science together in a ninety-minute block, the only subject that ends up losing significant instructional time is science — again, a subject that’s not actually reflected in the test scores that Flanagan cites.

King is actually in a rather unique position, given that its garden and kitchen program is entirely funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation. What this means is that any accusations that the money used to buy, say, a fancy wood-burning oven would be better spent on a new computer lab for the school are essentially moot — none of the school’s own funds are spent to support the Edible Schoolyard. This makes the school more or less impervious to the attacks of critics like Flanagan, but also makes the program difficult to replicate in districts that lack such a well-funded benefactor.

Nevertheless, Lustig concedes that the school does need to take the task of boosting those scores seriously. It can’t be content to simply offer students an incredible “educational experience” if the results, from an academic performance perspective, continue to be subpar. With that in mind, the school had already implemented a number of comprehensive changes designed to better support its weakest students — and did so well before Flanagan, who at no point contacted Lustig or the Edible Schoolyard staff, penned her attack. These changes range from revamping the master schedule in order to create room for a support period for students who are struggling, to increasing the number of internal, standards-based assessments that the students are given each year.

Ultimately, the Edible Schoolyard’s supporters view this assertion that the program doesn’t improve standardized test scores as somewhat of a straw man, since no one at the school seems to see the program as a means to that end. No one at King expects that the hour and a half per week spent in the garden will necessarily help close the achievement gap, but the school should be lambasted if it isn’t taking drastic steps to help those underperforming students. Lustig believes those steps are already being taken — and they have nothing to do with the Edible Schoolyard.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an academic aspect to the Edible Schoolyard, however. In fact, the program is designed to be fully integrated into the school’s curriculum as a whole, though the extent to which that happens is up to the individual teachers. Connections are often made, both by the kitchen and garden instructors and by the classroom teachers afterward — a connection to a particular poem, for example, or to a principle of geometry. The Edible Schoolyard staff has even created several workbooks that use experiences in the kitchen and garden to teach specific math and science lessons, which are all tied to specific California standards.

But even these kinds of connections, says Lustig, aren’t the best justification. As far as he’s concerned, the only good reason to support the Edible Schoolyard program is if you think the things the students are learning from it — about gardening, about cooking, about nutrition — are valuable in and of themselves.

“At the end of the day,” Lustig said, “I think it’s going to be important for the people who support things like the garden and kitchen program to fight the battle on that ground.”

There also was a bit of race baiting in Flanagan’s article, when she evoked the image of immigrant children being forced to perform manual labor — which certainly seems like a stretch for anyone who has spent time watching these students complete their garden tasks with as little rebelliousness, and as much good will, as you’d imagine is possible from boys and girls just hitting puberty.

What Flanagan may have sensed, and taken advantage of, however, is a perception out there that this Slow Food, locavore movement — to which the Edible Schoolyard is loosely attached — is, at its core, elitist and very, very white. And it’s this feeling that there is this elitist, liberal, white political agenda that’s being foisted on schoolchildren that rubs some people the wrong way.

Jason Harvey, who runs the nonprofit Oakland Food Connection, has been grappling with that perception for much of his life. Harvey is bi-racial — his mother is white and his father is African American — and grew up amongst people of color. He’d been running a farmers market in West Oakland, but it wasn’t until 2005, when he went to a conference in Atlanta and met Will Allen — the groundbreaking urban farmer from Milwaukee — that he had his epiphany:

“I was able to figure out, okay, it’s acceptable to be an urban farmer, a chef, a person of color who cares about the environment, and there are other people who are just like me.”

The conference validated Harvey’s desire to get more involved in the grassroots food justice movement, and he founded Oakland Food Connection in East Oakland shortly thereafter. Like the Edible Schoolyard, Oakland Food Connection also focuses on working with young people — setting up school gardens, running a farmers’ market, and educating the youth so that they can make better decisions about food.

Within the African-American community, Harvey finds that there’s often a certain amount of resistance and a tendency to label some of the items he might be selling at the farmer’s market as “hippie food” — things only white people would eat. But things are starting to change, he says. “There is a huge cultural shift happening right now, where people of color in particular are starting yoga studios and eating brown rice and cooking quinoa and not eating so much meat.”

According to Harvey, part of what would help is if people like Waters and Michael Pollan — the big powerhouses of Slow Food — would make more of an effort to reach out to communities of color, so as to make the movement more inclusive.

Back at the Edible Schoolyard, Benjamin Eichorn also believes the program could work on its messaging — especially from the people up top — in order to avoid alienating people unnecessarily. “When Alice says that these kids spend more money on their tennis shoes than they do on food, that’s not really helping,” Eichorn explains. “It’s pushing away. It’s not welcoming.”

In the end, Eichorn insists that the Edible Schoolyard has no political agenda.

“I don’t even use the word ‘organic’ with them,” he says. “And I think that would really surprise someone like Caitlin Flanagan. I don’t tell these kids, ‘Hey, eat organic.’ I say, ‘Hey, don’t fresh carrots taste great? Here, try one!'”

On the menu today in the kitchen class is vegetable curry, and by the time the next group of sixth graders streams into the room, the necessary ingredients are already laid out for them. All the best of the season, arranged on a platter as though for a still life, almost too beautiful to imagine eating: dainty fingerling potatoes, broccoli rabe with little yellow flowers, a half onion, a carrot with the top yet untrimmed, some turnips and cilantro.

The fully-equipped kitchen is large and airy, and it seems likely that any professional chef would feel perfectly at home here. There’s a sort of electricity in the air as the kids crowd around each table to hear their instructions, before splitting off to attend to their chosen tasks.

Esther Cook, the founding kitchen teacher, heads up the center table — her assistant leads another table, and the classroom teacher takes charge of the third. Cook — who, indeed, is a cook — has been with the Edible Schoolyard since 1997, when the kitchen program first started. She’d been a professional chef before that, but decided that what she really wanted to do was work with kids — “really getting to open them up to the power of food and the possibilities that can happen in the kitchen when you’re collaborating,” she explains.

After Cook gives the students some background about what a curry is exactly, she carefully explains how each task needs to be done, and the students go around and each sign up for something. And then they’re off — this one chopping the carrot, a pair measuring out and toasting up some spices. Amazingly, with these twelve-year-olds, almost everything is done from scratch, no shortcuts, and with hardly any micromanaging (the knives are sharp) — just the teacher’s watchful eye and a word of advice every now and again.

What’s miraculous, also, is how calm and civilized it all is. Everything is, “Would you please?” and “Thank you,” and kids who finish their assigned task quietly ask for something new to do or — without prompting — get a head start on washing the dirty dishes. Before long, the curry is on the stove, and the room is starting to smell good, and kids are lining up to have a taste to see if the seasoning needs to be adjusted. A few of the students start setting the table, with a real tablecloth and a place setting for each person in their group.

When the food is ready and all the students have sat down, Cook raises her water glass and says, “I’m going to propose a toast to our beautiful and delicious curry!” Everyone digs in. And, as Cook explains, for some of them this is the only time during the entire week that they’ll sit down and have a meal together with other people.

Even though it’s vegetable curry, and these twelve-year-olds are probably no less prone to be picky eaters than any others, they’re all eating — with gusto, even — because the curry has the carrot that they chopped, and the egg that they gathered, and the spices that they mixed. And it’s a good thing that they’re eating the curry, too, because it is delicious and full of nuance, and if Caitlin Flanagan went out to a nice Thai restaurant and was served this curry, it’s doubtful that she would know the difference.

As the kids get ready to head out, Cook sums up the day’s lesson: “We came. We prepped. We cooked. We ate. It was fantastic.”

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