The Garden Teacher- Part 2

Remarkable things have been happening behind-the-scenes here at Veggielution. In this bi-weekly blog series, our Youth Educator Janaki takes us to an elementary school on San Jose’s East Side, Aptitud Community Academy, where Veggielution has directed a grant-funded school garden program for 4 years. Highlighting snapshots and stories from her year as “The Garden Teacher”, in this final year of a grant cycle with no prospects for renewed funding, Janaki reflects on the struggles and transformations of a School Garden, and the mirroring, interconnected realities of the community and society around it.

Actual names have been changed.

"C'mon, let's see if they're ready!"

At recess on this sunny April morning, a group of 6th graders hustle over to bed #6 in the Aptitud School Garden. They barely notice me weeding around the native California Buckwheat plants. I watch them tromp past the lavender bush buzzing with bees, past the steadfastly vibrant romaine lettuce, past the vivid California poppies swaying in the breeze.

They have come to assess the snackability of the shell peas.

"Oh here-- here! Look, I found one!"

Joaquín fervently breaks the filled pod open as the other three kids crowd around. He pops a bright green pea into his mouth, and a look of satisfaction spreads across his face. He then generously shares the rest, after a bit of prodding from his cohort. I am delighted. In that moment, you cannot tell that Joaquín is one of the most behaviorally challenging students to work with at the school.

But, backtrack a second--kids are eating PEAS? Of their own volition?

Here in the Aptitud School Garden, fortunately, it is a common practice. Students here have also been known to leave their recess games of basketball or jump-rope to duck into the garden for a quick snack of cherry tomatoes, arugula, strawberries, and kale. Unwittingly being poster children for the simplest of health solutions: real-food diet and exercise.

It is one of the many reasons for why the Aptitud School Garden exists in the first place: to be a safe space where youth can learn about nutrition, not from a textbook, but from hands-on, memorable experiences. Never have 9-years olds been so excited about platters of chard and carrots. Being the Garden Teacher means that I get to share my love of real food for its spirit- and health-giving properties, a passing on of a visceral understanding and appreciation in the form of healthier bodies. With occasional "taste test" garden lessons, I introduce students to new seasonal vegetables that they then get to rate and describe, all while discovering new likes and developing their repertoire of adjectives. They are allowed to share their opinions, positive and negative, provided they communicate politely: “Interesting...this is just not my taste..."  And while the kale doesn't dazzle everybody, the descriptors that most students actually choose? Good, Fresh, Tasty and Sweet.

Take a moment to think about it, and you probably have some good taste-memories from your childhood too. Taste helps us learn. Taste carries memories. The students at Aptitud already have quite a collection--they can remember what they ate one year ago during a 25-minute cooking activity on a field trip to Veggielution. Ask them, and you will receive two-hundred and fifty memories of: making from scratch hummus, or seeded popcorn, or a plant-part salad in the Veggielution kitchen. Disappointingly, this year when I excitedly informed the 6th graders that the Veggielution Field Trip cooking activity would be something new-- "Pumpkin seed pesto!” they gave me sour-faces and groans. However, on Field Trip Day, with No High-Fructose Corn Syrup In Sight, when students gathered around the Veggielution kitchen to take part in combining fresh green onions, cilantro, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), and olive oil into a tantalizing spread that they ate on whole-grain bread--they were absolutely enthralled. They clamored for seconds. They wanted the recipe to share with their families. And months later, they find me in the garden: "Ms. Janaki! Remember when we went to Veggielution and we made that green spread out of pepitas? That was so good!"

And yet, these students are statistically at high risk for diabetes, being youth of color from a low-income community. Here on the East Side and throughout the nation, the condition known as "Type II- Adult Onset Diabetes" is currently developing in youth at higher rates than ever recorded in history. Young children are developing an insulin resistance as a result of their bodies trying to manage overwhelmingly high blood sugar levels. In conjunction with the School Garden Program, the Aptitud faculty adopted a school-wide Wellness Policy which bars sugary drinks or snacks. Teachers are painfully aware of how blood sugar affects the body and the brain. Blood sugar affects learning. Blood sugar affects behavior.

Joaquín did not get to experience the Pumpkin Seed Pesto. He was barred from attending Field Trip Day due to one too many behavioral infractions at the school. However, he did attend the “Garden Work Party” for families that I held one Saturday this spring--as part of his detention (I found out later), a sort of “community-service” requirement. His family did not attend with him. Joaquín didn’t sulk that day though, and got right to work digging irrigation line with one of the parent volunteers. And at the end of the work day, through a stroke of luck or divine synchronicity, he won the raffle prize: a jar of pepitas and a packet of pumpkin seeds for planting. The following week, when I ran into Joaquín in the school’s main office as he was awaiting his next disciplinary action, I asked him if he had opened the seed packet. He proudly replied, “Yes--and I planted them with my dad. And hey--when’s the next Garden Party?”

What if just a tiny fraction---a miniscule fraction---of the billions of dollars our country spends on pharmaceuticals and symptoms-based health treatments, was diverted towards garden-based education? In Silicon Valley and other parts of the Bay Area, private schools are now funding garden program coordinators and garden teachers. In essence, this is what the Health Trust of Silicon Valley has generously done for the past 3 years, funding “Garden Teacher” positions such as mine for high-need students in East San Jose. However, as the Health Trust now redirects its funding away from direct nutrition education, the need continues to grow. And grow. For this generation’s chance to run through a garden and snack on green peas, and more-- what is it worth?