Rick Hurd || East Bay Times || April 17, 2018
El Monte Elementary School garden educator Marian Woodard leads a class on the lifecycle of Ladybugs held in the school’s community garden in Concord, Calif., on Thursday, April 12, 2018. Mt. Diablo Unified School District was recently awarded a grant that will continue to aid its efforts to change the food culture within the district. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
CONCORD — The sun beat down on the six 8-by-4 square-foot boxed dirt beds carrying the nitrogen-rich fava beans that will enrich the soil needed for the tomatoes and various other vegetables to come in the weeks ahead.
Amid the more than two dozen such boxes in this garden the size of a Little League diamond, about two dozen second-grade students sit on the ground, enthralled by the lesson being presented. And the lady bugs they occasionally see.
“Do they fly?” a boy says to nobody in particular through a grin missing his two upper baby teeth.
The students are not on a field trip. Instead, they’ve trudged less than a hundred yards to the front entrance of El Monte Elementary School, where they attend school and experience “from seed to family table” learning that’s at the core of a partnership between the Mt. Diablo Unified School District and three other organizations that aims to make food a focal point of education.
The district and its partners were awarded a $189,430 grant last month from Battery Powered, a program established by a San Francisco social club that’s working to fund organizations interested in social change. The district’s partners include Eat REAL, a nonprofit that puts forth rigorous standards to certify when food is healthy; Life Lab, a garden-based science and nutrition education pioneer; and Wellness in Action, a wellness education and advocacy organization.
The money has district officials who are involved with the collaborative dreaming big, healthy thoughts.
“Picture a school cafeteria where you are offered a salad bar,” executive chef Dominic Machi, the MDUSD’s Director of Food Nutrition Services, said. “Imagine watching your food get made. Think about picking vegetables from your school garden and taking them home.”
That last thing already is happening at El Monte Elementary, a school in an impoverished area off Clayton Road in Concord.
“Students are welcome to take home whatever vegetables they like, as are the other residents who live in the area,” Principal Jennifer Molino said. “It’s a community garden. It just so happens to be at a school.”
The garden is more than just about the food it provides students — and their families — who need it. It’s also an educational class in itself, with the garden beds providing the inspiration for math and science lessons.
Secondly, it is an entirely new way to acquaint the children and their families with nutrition and wellness, two factors that officials say are critical to succeeding, not just in school but in life.
The grant now will give the district a fighting chance to meet those goals, officials said.
“We refer to it as ‘from the seed to the family table,’ ” Jennifer Sachs, the MDUSD Executive Director of Instructional Support, said. “That’s what we’re trying to impact. It allows the teacher and students to explore how to grow food healthy, and the teachers are trained to integrate that information into lab time. That’s all connected to afterschool events and parents’ nights, where students can cook.”
District officials say one of its goals is to receive a healthy food certification from Eat REAL, one of its collaborators in changing the food culture. “It would be a mark of excellence in the food we’re serving our kids,” Machi said, noting his district is the first one in California working toward this certification.
“One of the things I was passionate about was seeing better foods served,” he said. “We want to move away from the model of prepackaged food like you see at a convenience store. We want the kids to know where the food comes from, and why it’s important for them to know where it comes from.”
Machi also said the foundation for that vision plays out at the El Monte garden, which has become the school’s landmark in addition to a food source. To hear those associated with the garden tell it, the life lessons it provides are just as important.
“The kids feel connected to this garden, and they care about it,” Molino said. “We talk about Earth care, people care and fair share. They embrace it.”
Originally published by the Bay Area News Group