AV School Gardens: Helping Healthy Families Grow

by Jamie Lee, December 24, 2013

Before there was humankind, there was food.

One of the pleasures of living in Anderson Valley for over seven years now is to see, touch, feel, and be involved with the many, many activities that support, provide, and care for the land and the people here.

From Cindy Wilder’s everlasting determination to keep the AV Foodshed Group thriving over the years to the crew at Table 128, Laurens, Boonville General Store, Coq au vin and others who locally purchase their food needs whenever possible, supporting the critical small farms in the Valley and the community by keeping local dollars local longer.

None of our local food movement is more alive and growing, literally and passionately conspiring to co-inspire than the Anderson Valley school gardens’ staff and volunteers. Both AV Elementary and AV High School have fully operating educational food gardens where students are learning the values of growing healthy food locally as well as the basics of farming, gardening, and caring for the land.

Many have been involved in the evolution of the school gardens over the decades, so when I offered to write an article for the Connecting With Local Food series I thought it would be insightful to speak to those who are, and have been, directly involved and supporting this critical community food effort.

Rob Goodell ~

“One of my motivations, among many, for doing the school garden project in the early eighties was that many students did not have access to the natural world, which is the most obvious and remarkable resource of Anderson Valley.

In an attempt to change that, I worked with the students, Val Muchowski, and Katie O'Brien along with support from Donna Pierson-Pugh, and others to plant a small garden on the south side of the main building at the elementary school.

We concentrated on hardy and rewarding vegetables and flowers. We also did some work in the inner court with grape vines and herbs, as well as graft and plant a few trees around the campus. The gardens reverted to lawn in the summertime, but it was a start

School gardens have become an integral part of both campuses with a lot of staff and community support. We started the nature trail behind the elementary and the high school also, which has been picked up, and dramatically improved by Linda MacElwee. These trails give many students access to the natural world and a more complete education about life in general.”

Barbara Goodell ~

“Steve McKay created an extensive high school agricultural program in the early 1980s with the help of Federal grants and vocational education funding. At the time the AVHS Agriculture program was on the cutting edge technically, and had an international reputation. The greenhouses, animal enclosures, and garden were set up to train students in agricultural pursuits. There was a tissue culture lab, and advanced Peacessat system for Inter- Pacific communications. A very tall green house with heating elements was also erected for tropical fruit producing trees and plants.

Over several years a foreign exchange student program brought youth from the Pacific Islands like Truk, Guam, the Philippines, and Palau, as well as the Caribbean to Anderson Valley to attend our high school and to take agriculturally based vocational classes. Though the vision for the tall green house was not realized, the dwarf apple trees, garden space outside the domes, the other greenhouses, potting shed, chicken cages, and sheep barn have received continual use.”

Beth Swehla ~ AVHS Farm Manager, Agricultural Instructor, FFA Advisor

“I have been involved with the school farm for 25 years. There has always been some kind of school garden on the farm, even before it was popular to have school gardens. Over the years students have raised vegetables to sell at the Farmers’ Market and also have donated produce to the school cafeteria. Gardens teach students many life skills including responsibility and consistency, business opportunities, and the joy of gardening. It is exciting to see students watch seeds germinate, pull their first radish, or pick their first tomato. They also get great joy after receiving a check from the sale of garden produce.”

Charlene Rowland ~ AVHS School Garden Coordinator, Summer Garden Manager

Tara Lane & Charlene Rowland

Tara Lane & Charlene Rowland

“I have enjoyed being a part of the Anderson Valley Jr/Sr High School Gardens for the past 3 years. My work has included facilitating the After-School Garden Club, creating and maintaining a seasonal organic vegetable garden for use in the school cafeteria, teaching Nutrition Education to middle school students both in-class and in-garden, and designing and implementing the new culinary garden outside the school cafeteria.

I also host weekly Harvest of the Month taste testing in the cafeteria and through that program I have had really wonderful opportunities to encourage the students (and staff) to try many kinds of prepared, freshly- picked fruits and vegetables.

The garden classroom is a perfect environment to share not only valuable agricultural skills, but also teach youth leadership activities that will continue to have a positive effect on the teens as they grow toward adulthood.

It has been one of my biggest joys to watch students working together outside, eating food fresh from the garden that they have started from seed, nurtured through the season, and eventually harvested with their own hands! I have found deep job satisfaction working with the District and am very grateful to the staff, especially Tara Lane and Beth Swehla, for allowing me the opportunity to explore this path.”

Tara Lane ~ AVES School Garden Coordinator

“The Garden Coordinator position has been more than just a 'job'. Over the last 3 years it has evolved into an amazing opportunity that has allowed me to connect with children in a natural environment where their spirits can really shine through. The kids always have questions about gardening. They are curious and intuitive little creatures and I have to admit, I am always learning something from them. Having this amazing new garden space to explore, create, and learn in, has heightened the enthusiasm of the kids--some of which will ask if they can help out above and beyond their normal garden class time. I am always open to having them help me during recess or after school if I am outside working. It is very reassuring to know the kids desire to learn more about gardening which ultimately leads to learning more about their nutritional needs. I am fortunate to be able to touch on all subjects as to offer a variety of lessons to the kids.

My main focus this year is to encourage the kids to have their own garden space at home, even if it is in a couple of containers, and maybe grow something new. I keep a pot of "free seeds", such as, pumpkin, cilantro, sunflower, calendula, or whatever has been currently harvested by the kids, at the entrance of the school with instructions on how and when to plant them. They never last long. This makes me happy and gives me hope for their futures. I see the garden nutrition program growing in the years to come as sustainable agriculture and food awareness becomes an ever so important way of life."

Teri Rhoades ~ AV Schools Cafeteria Manager & Culinary Arts Instructor

“I absolutely support the school gardens. It is wonderful to see the Agriculture students out in the gardens learning to grow food and I see other kids notice what they are doing.

I have been involved with the AV School food program since 1983. We serve hundreds of meals of breakfast and lunch daily to both AVHS and AVES as well as providing bag lunches for school field trips. For the past two years I have participated in the Campovido ‘Feeding our Future’ program sponsored by North Coast Opportunities which provides us with assistance in the processing of local food as well as a chance to learn new ways to use the locally food.

I have been very excited to participate in the localizing of our food through produce provided by our local farms and am actively working with Charlene to help increase the use of food from the gardens in our school cafeteria.

It is also very nice that Charlene, with the help of Mike Foucalt, recently put in an herb garden right outside the school cafeteria. The more local food we can serve our students the more healthy and alert they are.”

Nat Corey Moran ~ AVHS Teacher

“Because of my teaching duties, I've mainly been peripherally involved in the school gardens through fundraising, planning, and connecting colleagues to various garden projects. I have used working in the garden as a reward--Jr. High students especially jump at the opportunity to be outside, work with plants, and get their hands dirty (though they generally dislike getting their shoes dirty).

Having an agricultural program and a school garden on campus means a lot to me. First of all, it helps connect the food we eat on campus back to the hands that cultivate and the soil that nourishes. In this era of highly processed foods, giving young people the opportunity to see where some of their food comes from is a first step in their making healthier eating choices. One day I hope to have much more of the food we use in the cafeteria grown in our community, and maybe even right here on campus.

A second reason that the agriculture program in general is important to me is because it helps balance our instruction and the priorities we teach our students. Though we face many challenges, it is my opinion that our school is doing a great job of preparing our students for a college education. However, not all of our students want to or need to go to college and the more vocational and "real world" skills we can give them, the better off they will be. Caring for animals and tending plants on our campus makes for better human beings.”

Donna Pierson Pugh ~ AVES Principal

“When I moved into room 3 at AVES, I inherited the first grade garden along with Elizabeth Wyant. We did some improvements on the raised beds and would plant pumpkins and sunflowers each spring to enter in the fair the following fall.

I started the worm boxes and fried worms every summer because of the southern exposure. The garden was never bountiful nor beautiful until we got a new crop of garden coordinators with the Nutrition Network funding that has lasted ten years.

The garden-based nutrition coordinators included Deleh Pasewalk, Angela Furia, Joanna Devine and Tara Lane. They each came in with energy and vision that has resulted in a dynamic and growing school garden with all students participating in gardening and nutrition education from Kindergarten through the 6th grade.

Tara and her husband Robby are expanding our school garden to more than twice the size of the original, with new beautiful new raised beds, and a split rail (deer) fence with the fiscal support of a Whole Kids grant that Tara applied for and received.

I feel very blessed every time I walk by our school garden, or when I see all the help and support our community’s volunteers and businesses provide for the school garden and for our children.”

Michelle Hutchins ~ AVHS Principal

“Coming from a small rural farming community up north in Hayfork, California we were able to utilize unused grass fields at our school that had working irrigation to plant potatoes, beans, and seasonal leafy produce. We grew so many organic potatoes we were able to save from having to order any conventional commercial potatoes (also saving money), having our students involved in helping to grow the food, and providing the healthiest locally-sourced food to the school cafeteria.

I am very supportive and excited to see the Anderson Valley school district have such a robust and active school garden program. Locally grown food helps support our children in many ways. They learn where food comes from and how they can grow food themselves as well as to support our local economy.

Growing and eating locally grown food provides nutrition for a more alert brain in our children as well as helping to keep sound bodies with which to grow.

I look forward to actively participate in the further development of the AV school gardens.”

North Coast Opportunities ~ Ukiah

Much of the school gardens projects have come from the support of financial sources outside of the community. North Coast Opportunities in Ukiah has spearheaded a countywide movement to have all schools in the county enjoy school gardens.

Miles Gordon and Susan Lightfoot, along with the rest of NCO have helped provide much needed support and assistance to provide food processing equipment, help organize financing for school gardens as well as provide work crews through California Conservation Corps.

One of the most innovative and exciting programs they have sponsored is the Feeding Our Future event at Campovida located in Hopland. Over 125 school cooks, kitchen managers, and food service directors from 12 school districts representing 40 schools across Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Humboldt and Del Norte counties participate for a day just weeks before school begins in the fall. “Most food service staff never get the chance to connect with each other and learn about new and innovative approaches to school food,” says Susan Lightfoot, Coordinator of the North Coast Opportunities Community Action (NCO-CA) Farm2Fork program. “Feeding Our Future helps schools gain momentum toward the shared goal of serving the healthiest, freshest, and most local meals possible to our communities’ kids.” The day is packed with hands-on activities, guest speakers, and–of course–delicious food. One of the many speakers is Libee Uhuru, Produce Manager at Ukiah Natural Foods Co-Op, who provided invaluable industry tips on how to maintain freshness in her hit workshop “Getting the Most Out of Your Produce.” Nicholas Petti, chef at Mendo Bistro and Culinary Arts Instructor at Mendocino College has done a hands-on workshop showing how to balance flavor profiles. Campovida’s master gardener, Ken Boek, leads a tour of their award-winning gardens, showcasing the culinary herbs growing there. And Jim Stewart, Head Chef at Ukiah Valley Medical Center, has demonstrated three side salads featuring all local ingredients to go with lunch.

The main course at lunch is the main event of the day, a “Top Chef Challenge” in which teams were tasked with creating an inventive wrap based on one of six different cuisines. The 18 teams comprised six members mixed across districts. Each team had to create and execute a wrap using specific ingredients, plus anything they chose from a pantry of goods. Teams then had to invent a name that would entice students to order their wrap off the menu, and serve it up on a decorative platter. “It was great that they didn’t have a recipe to follow, because all the wraps came out totally different,” says April Cunningham, Food Systems Project Assistant at NCO-CA, who is the mastermind of the wrap event. April adds, “They had to get creative, and everyone rose to the challenge.” “With all the focus on serving locally grown fruits and vegetables, this event supports the North Coast economy and helps build demand for local food,” says Lightfoot and “It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

As economic realities continue to diminish available Federal and State grant funding, it will be up to the local communities to continue to support both physically and financially the continuation of the wonderful activities that are flourishing in and around the AV School Gardens.

Future plans, visions and dreams include providing more school garden grown food to the AV cafeteria, using the summer gardens for further community education programs and sales, selling to local restaurants and renovating the schools greenhouses to be active and productive once again.

Fundraising activities, regular blogs by Tara and Char as well as updated school garden activities will be announced on the AV School Garden website at: avschoolgardens.org.

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Next in AV Foodshed Group’s Connecting With Local Food series will feature Rob Goodell and fruit tree grafting in anticipation of the upcoming grafting workshop. For any previous article in the series or for information on the 31st annual Fruit Tree Grafting Workshop and Seed & Scion Exchange at the Fairgrounds in Boonville on February 1, 2014, please go to www.mendocinolocalfood.org

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