From Toxic Soil, an Unlikely Garden

The good folk at The Edible Schoolyard posted this wee piece earlier today. If you’ve been following the spat around edible schoolyards in The Atlantic, here’s something to set things straight.

by Raj Patel and Meredith Palmer

When you think of an Edible Schoolyard, perhaps you imagine pristine land next to a gleaming new school and children with perfect teeth cooking kale or picking weeds. Chances are, the Edible Schoolyard in your mind’s eye isn’t sitting on a toxic superfund site. Yet that’s exactly where one of the most innovative programs, in San Francisco’s Hunters Point, flourishes.

Hunters Point is San Francisco’s third poorest neighborhood. Over 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level. The historically African American district has long fought environmental racism. The soil beneath The Schoolyard is contaminated because the US Navy and various industrial plants laced the neighborhood with heavy metals, radiation, and carcinogens. Rates of cervical and breast cancer are twice that of the Bay Area. Diabetes rates are almost three times higher here than the California average, and hospitalizations for heart disease, strokes, and asthma occur at some of the highest rates in the country. And, like parents in many poor neighborhoods, those in Hunters Point have few food choices.

This is the landscape where The Edible Schoolyard grows. To be accurate, The Edible Schoolyard at Hunters Point isn’t actually part of a school–it’s located at The Willie Mays Boys & Girls Club, an after-school program that gives children and teens ages 6-18 a safe place to learn and grow for only $10 a year. It’s open all year-round, after school, on most holidays and during the summer, providing child-care for working parents, homework and academic support, health and life skills, volunteer opportunities, and job skills for teens. There’s even a vocational pizza oven program that hunkers amid The Edible Schoolyard’s raised garden beds.

Despite the unpromising soil, this is an edible education that works. Monica Bhagwan, the Club Chef has seen how children eat better as a result of their participation in the program. “Their comfort level around a plate of vegetables is far superior to the youth who visit us from other Clubhouses or agencies,” Bhagwan notes. “They don’t think twice when they are offered a snack of carrots and hummus or kale chips. We recently made green pizza–kale, cheese, pesto, potatoes, garlic, and no tomato sauce!–and there were few qualms about eating it. They have an openness and acceptance towards vegetables that I do not find when engaging other kids in cooking and eating.”

The Willie Mays Clubhouse isn’t the only place where kids have wriggled out of the kind of diet encouraged by the food industry–good food and good education can help no matter where. A UC Berkeley study, funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation, reported that the kinds of food promoted by Edible Schoolyards have a host of benefits, not the least of which is an inclination among young people to eat more fresh vegetables.

The scene at The Edible Schoolyard at Hunters Point, of mainly elementary school children fussing over vegetable beds, is a far cry from one critic’s characterization of Edible Schoolyards as filled with children snatched from the classroom, dropped under the hot sun, and toiling for food under oppressive gardening regimes. The children tell us that they enjoy being there and, as one child pricelessly puts it on The Schoolyard’s web page, “This cucumber is so good I want to slap myself.”

Perhaps more important, the education at the Willie Mays Clubhouse reaches far beyond the drills of test-preparation that public education has become, and without eating into diminishing school budgets. Bhagwan and Iris DeSerio, the Garden Director, both report that the act of sitting together around a table and sharing food brings out the best in the children.

Many youth arrive at the Club struggling with anger management. For Bhagwan, it’s a priority “that the kitchen is a safe space for the children where they learn how to give and receive respect. I use the cooking activity, as a platform to coach the children around their communication with others, working together, and showing kindness.” And it works.

“In the past, our some members would have difficulty controlling their impulse to take over another child’s cooking job, and fights would occur,” Bhagwan continues. “Now, they know how to use the language needed to ask for a turn and negotiate appropriately. Some of our members have learned to initiate sharing and turn taking. They also have begun to demonstrate more empathy for other kids—for example, giving up a coveted task because another child seems to have their heart set on it.”

Parents are often surprised by the fact that children are allowed to use real knives in the kitchen. Yet in the two years Bhagwan has been there, the three or four injuries that have happened required nothing more than a band-aid (and that’s a far lower rate of harm than we have in our kitchens).

Despite its four-year long operation, The Schoolyard is still a source of everyday surprise for Bhagwan. “I’m amazed by how the kids incorporate the things they learn from The Edible Schoolyard in small ways–they rescue bugs, they compost without thinking, they ask ‘Is this healthy?’ when they bring food to the club. One kid went to a baseball game and asked his friend ‘Is that cilantro on your garlic fries?’”

Of course, no one pretends that The Schoolyard is a panacea. How could it be? It’s still hard to find fresh food in Hunters Point–94 percent of residents want new options for buying food in the neighborhood. And even if those marketplaces were available, poverty remains a profound problem. Though the garden beds at The Edible Schoolyard are raised and filled with imported soil, the neighborhood still remains full of toxic sites.

It’s true that the project also still needs external funding to carry on. But what’s being learned around the table is helping children, and their parents, in a neighborhood that has been systematically neglected in a town where the rich outnumber the poor.

The program is reaching out to a range of other community and gardening groups. And by making their table one that welcomes all, it provides a space to organize for the sorts of change that’ll one day mean that Edible Schoolyards aren’t an act of charity, but part of the fabric of a prosperous and just city.

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