Thursday, June 1, 2000
Bologna sandwiches and corn dogs? Sloppy Joes and grilled cheese sandwiches? It''s bad enough that art and music classes got squeezed out of the public school system, but is this really how we''re teaching our kids to eat?
Not if a group of impassioned moms, dads, teachers, chefs and gardeners have anything to say about it. At Carmel River School, they''re attempting to repair the ignominious relationship that a generation of children have with food and nourishment--the kind of nourishment that''s not only about building strong bodies, but maintaining a strong sense of community.
Ellen Fondiler, owner of Ellen Fondiler Garden Design in Carmel, is a master gardener who also happens to have two children in public school. When the kids came home from school one day on a low blood sugar tear, she couldn''t help but notice. When she asked them what they''d had for lunch at school that day, her concern became real.
Fondiler had heard about a program in Santa Cruz called Life Lab, a school gardening model for teachers to use as a part of their science curriculum. Rallying River School''s PTA to the cause, Fondiler went searching for funds. In 1993, she and a group of volunteers began putting in the garden. Today, there are 22 raised beds, one for each class. The dill, parsley, peas, strawberries, artichokes and lettuces that grow in the school garden are the proud handiwork of the kids and the adults who''ve taken the time to participate.
But once children have been taught to grow a squash, how do you show them that they can cook it, too?
Fondiler''s group of volunteers had also heard of Alice Waters, owner of the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and largely credited as the founder of "California cuisine." Waters, a spearhead of the organic food movement, is determined to make school gardens the refuge of nutrient- and culture-starved children through a project known as the Edible Schoolyard.
"Eighty-five percent of the school kids in Berkeley never go home to sit down to a family meal," says Waters, who visited River School last week."I used to teach 3- to-6-year olds. I feel like that''s the level of understanding about food in the kids I see now in sixth, seventh and eighth grades."
When the soft-spoken spitfire Waters took on the challenge of turning an abandoned, inner-city schoolyard around the corner from Chez Panisse into a garden, she began to see the state of things close up. "Kids don''t know what napkins are," she says. "They don''t know how to use a knife and fork. They don''t know how to say ''Please'' and ''Thank you''." She pauses for a moment. "These are just common courtesies, part of how we become civilized. It''s a very important human need. I think a lot of kids feel like they don''t have any meaning in their lives. A lot of kids are lost--rich and poor."
Waters set up the Chez Panisse Foundation to attract support for educational and cultural programs that promote sustainable agriculture, with particular attention given to young people. The Foundation helps to fund the garden and kitchen classrooms, each with its own teacher, as well as a coordinator and executive director at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley. Sixty volunteers do the rest. If and when it becomes a bond issue to be decided by the citizens of Berkeley this fall, King''s new cafeteria will become the model that Waters dreams to take far and wide. "It will be designed ecologically, set up so that there''s composting and recycling--unlike any cafeteria you''ve ever seen," says Waters. "[It will be] the kind of place where people will want to be in the kitchen, and be treasured and rewarded for their work."
At Carmel River School, the school administration and PTA are working together to raise funds to hire a garden director to develop a school-wide curriculum and run the garden program. Ellen Fondiler sees it as the chance to get the community involved in a living laboratory; one she envisions as "a big lemonade stand," as each harvest is made possible. Maybe even one that eventually can prove to kids that they can not only grow a squash, but cook and eat it too.
"You know," says Alice Waters, "you can talk about community, but around food, it''s a natural thing. We see this happen with our kids as they experience cooking something themselves and then giving it to their friends. It''s a way of feeling connected to other people. They''re hungry for it. They want the ritual in their lives--it''s an offering of love."