Helping People

No more mystery meat? These schools now grow their own food

Teacher Samuel J. Wims talks to his first-grade students about the Cotton Candy Strawberry Tree, which produces small red berries that taste like cotton candy, on Tuesday Oct. 25, 2016. The project is part of the Edible Garden Initiative at Kelsey Pharr Elementary School, a project sponsored by The Education Fund, a nonprofit that works to improve and innovate public education in Miami-Dade County.
Teacher Samuel J. Wims talks to his first-grade students about the Cotton Candy Strawberry Tree, which produces small red berries that taste like cotton candy, on Tuesday Oct. 25, 2016. The project is part of the Edible Garden Initiative at Kelsey Pharr Elementary School, a project sponsored by The Education Fund, a nonprofit that works to improve and innovate public education in Miami-Dade County. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Edible vegetation at Kelsey Pharr Elementary is growing like a weed.

Last year, the sun-drenched grassy plot snaking alongside the Liberty City school offered seven containers of raised-bed gardens, with plants producing tomatoes, broccoli and other familiar fruits and vegetables. Tables sprinkled through the area sat largely unused (no refuge from Miami’s unrelenting heat), and anyone on the lookout for exotic birds would have had to settle for a dove or a pigeon.

Enter corporate philanthropy.

Following a sizable donation from Citi in 2015, The Education Fund was able to enhance its Edible Garden Initiative, which grows and harvests produce on the grounds of 51 elementary or K-8 Miami-Dade County public schools. The funding transformed gardens from 11 schools into food forests that helped produce not only meals served in the school cafeterias, but about 26,000 bags of fruit and vegetables that went home with the students. Twin Lakes Elementary in Hialeah offers the largest forest at a quarter of an acre.

By January 2017, five more schools will have graduated from backyard beds to woodsy thickets.

“This has really changed the landscape of schoolyard gardening,” said Linda Lecht, president of The Education Fund, a nonprofit group that works to improve and innovate public education in Miami-Dade County.

Both The Education Fund and the Urban Oasis Project, a nonprofit that runs farmers markets and works with small farms to make locally grown food accessible to everyone, focus on helping people improve their eating habits while educating them on the importance of knowing the origin of items they’re eating.

Lecht credits Citi’s funding as a “significant portion” of the Edible Garden Initiative’s approximately $500,000 annual budget. While it costs about $6,000 to generate a raised-bed garden, food forests start at roughly $30,000. The mostly perennial plants are chosen in part for their unique standing, an ability to grow quickly (adult trees are planted so students don’t have to wait years to pick the fruit) and cultural connection to the neighborhood, said Eddie Recinos, senior program manager for the Initiative.

Walking through the 7,500-square-foot, canopy-shaded garden at Kelsey Pharr recently, Recinos identified dozens of tropical and subtropical plants that flourish in the often-complained-about Miami climate. Recinos, a former art teacher, plucked some blueberry-sized cotton candy fruit from a strawberry tree and pointed out how the height allows easy access (and harvesting) for students standing on the staircase.

The accessibility of the food, and knowing where it has come from, also help the students make better eating choices, said Audra Wright, nutrition wellness coordinator for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Tending and harvesting foods that end up in the cafeteria, and on their dinner table, awaken them to a broader understanding of nutrition, she said.

At Urban Oasis-run farmers markets (which take food stamps), customers peruse a variety of kale, carrots and eggplant, as well as free-range, organically fed chicken eggs and grass-fed beef. The organization works with smaller sustainable farms because they are more committed to providing decent working conditions and they use less pesticide, thereby taking better care of the soil, said Project president Art Friedrich.

The organization has helped start community gardens, has planted at homeless shelters and has taught folks living in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods how to grow their own food. Friedrich pointed out that poorer people are disproportionally impacted by not being able to afford fresh produce, so they eat a lot of “processed junk,” which leads to diabetes and obesity.

“It’s really just a terrible cycle. We want to promote getting people connected to their food and their health,” he said.

According to data collected from The Education Fund, students’ eating habits have improved 50 percent since the dawning of the food forests, Lecht said. Surveys also show that parents reported serving healthier meals than before gardens took root. Kids who likely would have passed up the salad with romaine lettuce in years past choose it now because they helped grow and harvest the cranberry hibiscus served with it, she added.

Two other garden options chosen for their nutritional content are moringa trees, whose leaves provide twice the calcium as milk and four times the protein, and Barbados cherries, which individually carry the Vitamin C of 18 oranges, said Debi LaBelle, Initiative program manager and a chef of 20 years. Other nutritional items include malanga, a potato-like root crop popular in Cuban cuisine, collards and lemongrass.

Kelsey Pharr teacher Samuel J. Wims excitedly showed recent campus visitors photos of how different the garden looked last year, with students encircling a grassy area now dominated by a 30-foot tree boasting scores of bananas. Back then, Wims saw only “regular” birds flying in and out. Since the forest, Wims has noticed painted buntings, known for their vivid blue, yellow and red feathers, landing on branches.

“We’ve created a habitat,” he said.

How to get involved

Go to educationfund.org and search for Edible Garden Initiative.

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