I started this volunteer project with a list of organization I had to help and activities I wanted to do. Volunteering at a school garden was at the top (for reasons I will explain later). But after months of contacting gardening non-profits without a single phone call or email returned I began to believe that school gardens and even community gardens were mythical creatures like unicorns. Oh, everyone had seen one and “it was beautiful” and “it had performed miracles” in various communities, but no one knew whom to contact or even how to direct me to aforementioned mystic garden. Every once in a while, walking through LA, I would come across a community garden or school garden locked behind a metal gate. I would stomp around the front, pull on the gate, shout inside at the plants to let me in and look up at the top wondering if I could climb over. I never managed to get in or find anybody in charge so I would slump home disappointed.
With zero success finding a garden to help by month seven I filed the idea in the back of my brain and got on with other activities. Then, while picking fruit with Food Forward (FF), I got in a confessional mood and voiced my frustration with school garden programs. That’s when the lovely Erica of FF came to my rescue. She had just worked with The Garden School Foundation (GSF), and, “Yes!” she could put me in touch with the guy in charge. Nat, the Executive Director of GSF, emailed me right away when he got my contact information, and in just a few short weeks I walked into the courtyard of 24th Street Elementary for my first day of volunteering with the group.
In the courtyard I expected to see either a 20 ft by 20 ft dried up patch of ground with struggling plants or a few garden boxes assembled on crumbling asphalt. I was so wrong. The school is lucky enough to have several gardens, the largest of which is ¾ of an acre (pictured on page) and is covered with heirloom tomatoes, mint, basil, strawberries, peppers, squash, cucumbers, orange, apple, and lemon trees. Almost every inch has been put to use. A small barn to one side holds the tools and shelters two picnic tables where Nat offers cooking classes during the year for the students. All garden and food waste is collected in several large compost piles and colorful signs indicate which classroom is responsible for a particular plot. I was in awe. This inner city elementary school within spitting distance of the skyscrapers of downtown LA was putting most community groups to shame.
I quickly found Nat hacking the ground with a hoe. He gave me a quick tour of the grounds while apologizing profusely that the majority of work today would be weeding. That was fine with me. I found some cotton gloves in the shed, pulled on a long sleeve shirt, cursed myself for forgetting my baseball cap, and got to work. I cleared 4 small beds of piles of Bermuda grass. Since Nat lets the children plant whatever they want there were strawberries with watermelons and green beans growing among squash. No real rhyme or reason, but every plant seemed to be healthy even in the dry California weather.
Since the students would not return for a couple of weeks Nat gave me some vegetables that would rot before they could be used. After several hours of gardening I had sore biceps, tiny blisters on my hands, a small collection of mismatched vegetables (pictured on page) and a gardeners happy glow. (A heavy sunscreen kept me from getting a red glow – Do Not Forget Your Sunscreen and a Hat When You Work in a Garden!)
Sitting on my kitchen counter, later that evening, I stared at my random veggies trying to decide what to make. The yellow cucumber looked like an alien egg, the tomatoes would have to be eaten right away or they would spoil, and what could be done with dried up cayenne peppers? Salsa was the only logical choice. Luckily I improvised a recipe that turned out to be kinda awesome:
Heirloom Garden Salsa
1 part onion
1 part yellow cucumber
3 parts tomatoes
Jalapeno peppers (seeds removed unless you like really spicy)
Cayenne peppers (seeds removed unless you like your mouth to catch on fire)
Chop fine. Mix Together.
I can’t give you precise measurements because I just added stuff until it was delicious. Good Luck.
School gardens reconnect children with how their food is produced, teaches them scientific principals, introduces them to local food, and adds fresh fruits and vegetables to their diet. For those who don’t know - the FDA classifies ketchup and tater tots as a vegetable. Standard school cafeteria lunches are nutritional nightmares, which teach children that hamburgers, pizza, chicken nuggets, and french fries should be part of their daily diet. No wonder America has a severe obesity epidemic. School gardens are the vital link to turning the cycle of dietary degradation around. To learn more check out: Garden School Foundation, Renegade Lunch Lady, and Urban Farming.