A young girl with a big toothy grin removes a green bean from its pod and pops the fresh peas into her mouth. Nearby, a boy gazes at a small, ripe kumquat, takes it off a tree and bites into it. A surprised look appears on his face as he experiences the mix of bitter and sweet. The clouds move away and the sun’s rays stream into the garden after weeks of rain. Birds chirp overhead and bees pollinate the crops. While this may sound like a rural schoolhouse scene from Little House on the Prairie, this pastoral moment takes place at Garden School Foundation, an urban school garden in South Los Angeles that is surrounded by a 20-foot fence and overlooks the I-10 freeway.
Garden School Foundation’s motto since its inception has been to “beet the asphalt” by creating a peaceful sanctuary for children and by teaching them, in the words of executive director Kathryn Kocarnik, that “Learning what growing a seed can do is one of the most powerful forms of education you can have.”
In 2003, 24th Street Elementary School in South L.A. learned that the school was going to have its enormous asphalt playground repaved. The park-starved community and school — which is 84 percent Latino and 13 percent African-American — advocated for the space to be turned into something green and beautiful for the children. Over the following years, the garden grew and flourished as the community, parents and teachers worked together to create an acre-plus garden that includes an orchard with 55 fruit trees, 16 vegetable production beds, a shaded teaching area and a "Latino Heritage" garden.
On a recent visit, a fourth-grade student shared that the experience in the garden “changed my life because I used to eat hot chips but now I eat vegetables.”
Garden School Foundation integrates the school’s academic curriculum into the outdoor experiences in the garden. Each lesson is divided into three parts: an introduction in the classroom setting, an interactive and hands-on garden-based lesson to bring these concepts to life, and a reflection both in the garden and in the classroom on how it relates to their learning and personal growth. For example, one first-grade lesson teaches students how to take care of a garden with vocabulary such as raking, weeding, planting and harvesting and then encourages students to partake in these activities. Afterward, students reflect on their responsibility to take care of the garden and the Earth. A third-grade student at the garden says his time there “has evolved me from ‘dessert-ivore’ to omnivore.”
Along with gardening, the students learn to prepare up to 60 different healthy recipes, some of them by riding a bicycle-powered blender, an ingenious and fun way to get children to try the different foods they grow in the garden. Children learn to make kid-friendly recipes such as a Super Smoothie, which contains different fruits and a few vegetables including kale. The children also make agua fresca, black bean soup and even pesto with the bicycle-powered blender.
The children’s experiences in the garden extend into their lives outside of school, says co-director Evah Hart. Stunned parents frequently ask the teachers, “How did you get my child to eat kale?” Along with teaching the children, the foundation invites the local community to be involved. “Every month we have a Community Garden Day to encourage intergenerational conversations, host educational workshops and invite chefs to share their garden-inspired recipes,” Kocarnik says. Over the years, the program has expanded its garden-based nutrition education in collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District. Currently, its programs in seven schools serve more than 2,500 low-income students.
“The garden is generous with growing produce, so we love to send it home with our families every week," Kocarnik says.
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One of the parents at 24th Street Elementary, Amabilia Villeda, a Guatemalan mother who volunteers in the garden, says the garden has had a positive effect on her family. She and one of her children have diabetes, but since they have been involved in the garden their health and weight have improved. She says her involvement was very meaningful because it also connected her children to their own cultural heritage. Some children who live in the area have little contact with fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Yet many of the parents of these children immigrated from Mexico and Central America, just like Villeda, where their families farmed the land for their own sustenance or for profit. When they arrive in the United States, these immigrant families sometimes miss the connection to their agricultural roots, which is often an important part of traditional Latin American cultures. As academics Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Jose Miguel Ruiz explain in the paper Belonging and Homeland Making in Urban Community Gardens, gardens can help Latino immigrants “build community ties, friendship and homeland re-creations, as they gather to grow vegetables, fruits and medicinal herbs.” Verdant spaces such as Garden School Foundation, they say, serve as “palliative sanctuaries” for immigrant families, as sites for “the re-creation of homeland and as new spaces of belonging.”
Garden School Foundation unites the community, involves parents, engages youth in outdoor activity, increases access to healthy food and improves mental health, Kocarnik says. The respect the community has for the garden extends beyond the children and their families. When the school was vandalized a few years ago, graffiti was painted everywhere — except the garden. Outside the wall of the garden someone had painted a proclamation in black letters: “DON’T HURT NATURE.”