Field Notes, Nonprofits

Edible Schoolyards Help Kids Grow

edible schoolyards

Having revolutionized American cuisine with the launch of her Chez Panisse restaurant in 1971, chef Alice Waters created a second wave of change with her Edible Schoolyards program in 1995. Her first effort served adults; her second, their children. Taken together, her impact has touched us all.

Alice’s philosophy is succinct. We should all be able to eat and have access to fresh, seasonal food. We should understand how our food is grown and where it comes from. Food is to be celebrated and enjoyed, its preparation experienced as pleasure rather than chore.

Fast food, she recently told an audience gathered to support Edible Schoolyard, “tells us that work is drudgery. That more is better. That our natural resources are limitless. That everything should be the same, no matter where we go.”

Loaded with fat, sugar, and salt — fast food is often what children want most. It activates all of our pleasure sensors and quickly overwhelms them, resetting taste buds to exaggerated heights.

Not wanting her own daughter Fanny to grow up eating junk food, and concerned about how other children in her community and beyond were being exposed to poor eating habits that could affect them for life, Alice decided to do something about it.

She convinced the administration at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in her hometown of Berkeley to turn a weedy one-acre parking lot into an experimental garden. Soon came a communal kitchen and a whole new curriculum for teachers and students at King Middle.

Alice knew that math, science, history, humanities, and even technology can all be taught from the garden. Planting, growing, harvesting, and preparing food offers opportunities to explore all of the academic subjects. Students must cooperate and interact; along the way, they gain independence and the satisfaction that engenders.

Dedicated to the ideal of children having a balanced daily meal that is as delicious as it is healthy, Alice helped to establish the School Lunch Initiative for all students across the Berkeley city school system. Over 10,000 students participate each school day. No one is trading Cheeto’s for a PBJ sanny in Berkeley school yards.

Today there are five affiliate Edible Schoolyard programs across the country in places as disparate as New Orleans and San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and even Greensboro, North Carolina. A study followed students at one school over three years and discovered them to be healthier and better informed than similar students who didn’t have access to a school garden.

Speaking to that same audience raising money for Edible Schoolyard, Alice concluded, “I feel like [fast food has] imprisoned us, depriving us of living harmoniously with nature. Every time we choose what to eat, we’re voting for the kind of world we want.”