Garden Teaches Children to Nurture, Understand Nature





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Just five years ago, the flourishing organic garden at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School was nothing but an abandoned lot of broken asphalt and scraggly weeds.

Today, these same two acres adjacent to the school teem with fresh greens, vegetables, herbs, sunflowers, edible flowers and, most importantly, children.

The transformation is an undertaking of the Edible Schoolyard, a program at King Middle School designed to "create and sustain an organic garden and landscape which is wholly integrated into the school's curriculum and lunch program."

Seven years ago, UC Berkeley alumna Alice Waters, in collaboration with school Principal Neil Smith and members of the Berkeley community, began plans for the development of the program. Now the Edible Schoolyard, which includes the garden and a kitchen classroom, will expand to include a cafeteria at the middle school, something that the school has gone without for many years.

The program is part of Waters' vision to bring an appreciation and awareness of food and nutrition to America's schools.

Last year, Waters was named Berkeley's Alumna of the Year, and her five-star restaurant, Chez Panisse, has earned her international praise and recognition.

"The energy and resources dedicated to this undertaking reflect our deep commitment to having the Edible Schoolyard serve as a model, which will inspire schools throughout the nation," reads the organization's Web site.

At the middle school, students are involved in all aspects of farming the garden "as a means of awakening their senses and encouraging appreciation of the transformative values of nourishment, community, and stewardship of the land," according to the program's mission statement.

"(It is meant) to connect kids in a way with nature that would help them see the relationship of food to agriculture and food to culture," Waters says. "It is a project whose time has come. We need to feed ourselves beautifully."

The program has been moving along with rapid speed. While the garden was being established, plans to renovate the school's old kitchen were already underway. In the spring of 1997, the Edible Schoolyard Kitchen was opened, providing a place for students to cook the food from their garden.

The 1997 Summer Program allowed students to experience the full garden-to-kitchen for the first time in the program's short history.

The kids learn how to grow plants, which involves biological and chemical education, as well as how to plant and cook food, says Karen Sarlo, a district spokesperson.

"I believe kids are transformed in this whole process, connecting with the land and around the table," Waters says.

She calls the process of gathering around the table to share a meal "civilizing."

"Through sharing the daily ritual of gathering around the table for a meal, students became active participants in the cycles of the earth and its seasons," the project overview states. "Through growing, cooking, and eating their food they began to make sense of their place in the ecosystem."

The overview says the success of the Summer Program was encouraging because it showed that plans for a similar Edible Schoolyard organic breakfast and lunch program for the entire school are possible.

The schematic designs for this schoolwide lunch program were presented at the Berkeley Board of Education meeting last week by Baker Villar architects.

"I never imagined that this would happen so quickly," Waters said during the presentation.

Currently, King Middle School does not have a cafeteria for its 900 students. Fast food is served at "snack shacks." The dining commons will be designed to accommodate 500 students at a time, with two rooms for 250 students each. The cafeteria will serve breakfast and lunch prepared by the students.

"We really do imagine all the kids wanting to eat there, and we are planning for that," Waters says.

She says the food will be delicious, nutritious and inexpensive. The cafeteria would be designed in an "ecological way," since one of the program's governing principles is the recycling of waste back into the earth, Waters says.

School Boardmember Shirley Issel hails the coming of the cafeteria as "thrilling and exciting and wonderful" for the school.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl is also supportive of Waters' endeavors.

"The chancellor is very supportive of the work that Alice Waters does on both a global context and particularly with the Berkeley schools," UC Berkeley spokesperson Marie Felde says. "(He is) a terrific supporter of her efforts."

Funding for the Edible Schoolyard has so far come from contributions of the public and private sectors. The Chez Panisse foundation has provided much of the funding, and last year the Robert Mondavi Winery donated $50,000.

"(We) share a common goal - a respect for the environment that leads to a more delicious and healthier lifestyle," said Tim Mondavi, managing director of the winery, in a statement.

The estimated cost of the dining commons construction is $4,542,200. Two items coming up on the November ballot, measures AA and BB, could provide significant funding for the cafeteria.

"I think it's a real sense of pride that the community has been part of this vision," School Boardmember Terry Doran says.

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