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Edible SchoolYard Academy

July 18, 2017
By: Stephanie Loui, FoodCorps Service Member

Last month, with support from Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation, I along with three ʻĀINA in Schools docents and educators attended the Eden of school gardens: The Edible Schoolyard Project (ESY) based in Berkeley, California. Founded 20 years ago as a collaborative project between Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School (King) and Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, ESY set a timely example for edible education to follow. Today ESY serves as an incubator, an international network, a training site, and above all for its dedicated staff, a full-time kitchen and garden program for middle school students at King.

Day 1: Planting the Seed
It’s the first day of ESY Academy, a five day training program for educators to gain tools in curriculum development, strategic planning, evaluation and other components to building a sustainable and integrated farm to school program. I depart from downtown Berkeley for a sunny half-hour trek through the neighborhood, overflowing with summer blossoms and vegetable terraces, citrus trees and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. I immediately get lost at King and wander the halls until I find a similarly out of place teacher from Alaska.

It turns out, we are only a few hundred feet from our destination- a 1-acre learning garden next to a kitchen classroom, overgrown with rogue herbs and fruiting trees, climbing vines and whimsical planting formations.

This first afternoon is dedicated to introductions, networking and goody bags (curriculum binders). Over fresh garden bites served by middle school students in ESY’s internship program, Academy participants take the opportunity to wander the garden’s winding paths and outdoor classroom spaces. It’s the beginning of what will prove to be a highly sensory and explorative week, guided by its enthusiastic staff. Comprised of 16 members, the ESY team is beautifully diverse, engaged, and exudes a unique calm for people working with pitchfork and paring knife-wielding preteens.

Day 2: Measuring Growth
We meet on the first official day of instruction in a high-ceiling, copper fixture dining hall with reclaimed wooden picnic tables, enormous windows, and an open-style kitchen fully equipped for scratch-cooking and dishwashing. This is where King Middle students enjoy their daily meals, minus the typical faceless, overcrowded, and fluorescent-lit cafeteria setting many of us recall or see in today’s public schools. Meals are an hour long and feature fresh, local produce and menus that celebrate the diversity of food often forgotten in the lunchroom.

The first day is led by ESY Director herself, Kyle Cornforth. Based around topics of organizational structure and program evaluation, I plan to be politely interested and primarily working on calendaring and other busywork… Instead I am immediately engaged because everyone else is too and we are all fixed on the same essential questions, despite geographic and social differences. From Hawai’i to Alaska to Japan, teachers and non-profit coordinators share concerns over staying power, staff diversity, and sustainable funding. I am taking piles of notes to compare with others at my table. I meet a group from ESY Tokyo and swap evaluation ideas with pre-kindergarten students.

Day 3: A Taste of Edible Education
For a food geek like myself, kitchen classroom day is the most magical day. Upon entering the room, I am met with beautiful, intentional details in all directions. Every available wall space is occupied by food tools from around the world, ingredients neatly labeled and fully stocked, and art tucked into every space in between. The central area is dominated by three long, wooden tables where much of the instructional time takes place, complete with overhead mirrors, knife “tool-boxes” and gorgeous hand-written recipes with anatomically correct plants and names. Kitchen day involves geography, food memories, cultural celebration, and a surprisingly comprehensive pH lesson taught through cabbage-dyed water.

We share a tasty “Greens Over Grains” lesson, led by knife-wielding 8th graders with the confidence and self-possession of full-fledged chefs. The internship program at ESY is another brilliant tool of the organization which serves to mentor self-selecting students who wish to take up leadership positions in the kitchen and garden. Narrowing the scope from the previous day’s structural and systems thinking, today I am energized by ideas of student empowerment and leadership.

Day 4: Getting into the Nitty Gritty in the Garden
Beginning with a typical overcast Berkeley morning, the first half of the day is dedicated to self-selected workshops. I opt into “Anti-oppression in Nutrition Education”, a topic buzzing through the farm to school world as the field begins to expand yet fails to reflect the diversity of students served by educators and non-profits in the work. Participants describe anxiety around not looking like their students, or feeling inadequate in conveying cultural lessons. Some who identify as people of color share stories of casual racism they have seen directed towards students by their superiors, or instances of deep discomfort with their largely homogeneous workplaces. The experience is uncomfortable and emotional, and ends unresolved.

I have had a lot of conversations since then about the session and how it felt in the context of Hawaiʻi and my experience of race and culture in the world. Though I am not sure how to feel yet, the simple mental exercise of reflecting on social interactions and perceptions of other people is helpful in becoming a better teacher. I think about moments where I don’t take the time to understand a child’s unique perspective in the pursuit of a cohesive class. I remember the mentors who took the time to learn about me as a whole and how important that is to me today.

Leaving the heaviness of the preceding workshop, the garden is soothing as the day grows gradually brighter and warmer, shedding filtered sunlight onto the magical space that is the ESY garden. Its fences interwoven with vines and lined with orchard trees and shrubs, the garden appears endless, crossed with foot paths and arbors for students (and adults) to explore. We learn about water conservation, compost, and seed-saving in rotations with each of the garden educators who share their passion for food growing and teaching through experiential lessons. They balance time maximization like pair-and-share talks during walks, with plenty of independent exploration like silent guided observation near the pond. We meet the chickens, the bees, and the occasional Berkeley resident wandering through the open-ended garden which is left open to the public.

Day 5: Seed Balls
It feels like an entire summer has passed and that I have known the other Academy attendees for years. By now, lunch group clusters have formed and reorganized and there are no petrified faces scanning the room for eating companions. The Academy closes with a group circle, linked by a piece of thread that runs all the way around. Holding the thread, I scan faces, recalling shared eureka moments, passionate ideas, fundamental disagreement, and so many other points of connection over this brief week. We share a taste of nasturtium petals and each depart with a wildflower seed ball and a lot of information to take back to our schools and organizations.

After many goodbyes, I run to catch up with my ride, a seed ball clutched in my hand. It explodes immediately because of my excitement. I scatter the remains in a bare patch near King, imagining wildflowers where there is dirt.

To learn more about ESY’s continuing education summer programs, visit their website for upcoming events and other resources. ESY offers many of its lessons online along with contributions from other organizations around the country.