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A Closer Look at the Controversy Surrounding School Gardens

January 10, 2010 04:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
School gardens are not without controversy, despite largely positive news coverage and political attention.

Lessons in the Garden

In an article this week for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan asserts that the school garden movement is depriving students of necessary time in class.

Flanagan blames, in part, Alice Waters, the chef of Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse, as the “galvanizing force” behind school gardens. The Department of Education is also at fault “for allowing gardens to hijack the curricula of so many schools,” Flanagan writes. The lack of “evidence” that school gardens will positively impact students bothers Flanagan. She also discusses the issue with inner city educators, one of whom dismisses school gardens as having nothing to do with helping students get into college. 

But some would argue that the lessons learned in the garden are as necessary as classes in math, science and humanities. Issues like childhood obesity, diabetes and other conditions caused by unhealthy diets are already holding some students back from reaching their full academic and personal potential.

According to Allison Aubrey, in a recent piece for NPR, a Centers for Disease Control report found that “only 13 percent of adolescents eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables,” while one-quarter of U.S. children is either obese or overweight. Such dire statistics suggest that past efforts, such as health classes in schools, may not be effective tools.

Could School Gardens and Related Programs Help Pick Up the Nutritional Slack?

The Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans is just one of many schools across the country implementing garden programs that allow students to harvest fruits and vegetables for cafeteria meals, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. 

In Washington, First Lady Michelle Obama initiated the White House garden, intending to set an example for the rest of the country.

NPR toured the White House garden and spoke with Sam Kass, the 29-year-old assistant chef at the White House and food initiative coordinator. Kass is responsible for “matters related to children’s nutrition and promoting healthy lifestyles,” a job that has introduced him to many D.C.-area students.

He’s worked with kids involved in farm-to-kitchen-to-table programs begun by the nonprofit organization Share Our Strength. The organization teams with volunteer chefs and, in some cases, registered dietitians, to teach students “how to use good ingredients to make simple, healthy food — all while staying within a budget.” Nearly 300,000 students have participated so far, Aubrey reports.

Though programs like those led by Share Our Strength sound thoroughly beneficial, they present important questions: If the same efforts, funding and press attention were devoted to academic subjects, would students’ grades and college prospects improve?

It’s a question that Flanagan poses in The Atlantic, and one that is echoed by Michael Piscal, the CEO and founder of Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools in South Los Angeles. “The only question in education reform that’s worth anything is this: What are you doing to prepare these kids for college?” Piscal told Flanagan.

Opinion & Analysis: Food as social agenda

Those in favor of school garden programs often cite the importance of a local food system. Andrea Northup, the executive director of the D.C. Farm to School Network, does so in a guest blog post for The Slow Cook. Regarding “Healthy Schools” legislation, which was recently introduced to the D.C. Council and encourages schools to provide students with nutritious local foods, Northup writes, “the bill in one broad stroke addresses interlocking concerns surrounding child wellness, sustainable food production and construction of a resilient local food system.”

But others, such as Flanagan, find fault with “the idea of a school as a venue in which to advance a social agenda.”

“The Daily Show” poked fun at critics of the Obama’s organic White House garden, but claims persist that sustainable and organic food is part of an elitist movement that’s unrealistic or unattainable for most people.

Sustainable Snobbery

The Yale Sustainable Food Project (YSFP), affiliated with Yale University and Alice Waters, has faced such criticism. In a 2008 article for the Yale Daily News, Summer Banks addresses the sustainable food movement’s “elitist past,” and the notion that “sustainable dishes are often frilly or gourmet,” and typically cost more than conventional meals.

But YSFP participants contend that snobbery associated with sustainable food is due partly to past mistakes. Gordon Jenkins, a 2007 Yale graduate, worked for Slow Food and Alice Waters in 2008.

“People involved in the food movement, and Alice in particular, have done a very poor job of presenting themselves,” Jenkins told Banks. Furthermore, the fact that “food is so personally and intimately intertwined with daily life” means it is difficult for people to be “lectured” on what to eat without having an emotional response, Banks writes.

Background: Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard

Today, chef, restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters is a leader in the school garden movement. 

Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation started a school garden program in Berkeley, Calif., that provides students with “hands-on experiences in school kitchens, gardens, and lunchrooms.” The program’s goal was to inspire kids to lead healthier lives. The Foundation plans to initiate a nationwide program.

The original Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley is a cooking and gardening program planned by Waters and the school’s former principal, Neil Smith. Planning for the program began in 1995, and today it is an integral part of the school’s curriculum and cafeteria menu.

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