Students plant ‘food forests’ in Miami-Dade public schools

Tanyiah Jones 10, left, along with Carlos Contreras 9, and Ronnield Luna 8 take a tour of the garden at Kelsey Pharr Elementary with Education Fund gardener Samuel Chillaron on Wednesday, April 29th, 2015.
Tanyiah Jones 10, left, along with Carlos Contreras 9, and Ronnield Luna 8 take a tour of the garden at Kelsey Pharr Elementary with Education Fund gardener Samuel Chillaron on Wednesday, April 29th, 2015. MIAMI HERALD

At 11 Miami-Dade County public schools in marginalized, low-income neighborhoods, the first “edible gardens” or “Food Forests” are being planted. They’re 100 percent organic, grown without pesticides and offer a wide variety of native as well as exotic species, such as a tomato variety from the Everglades. Though most of the fruits and vegetables grown in the “Food Forest” are not sold in supermarkets, they are the ones which grow best in South Florida and which can provide all the nutrients necessary for students and their families.

The first “edible garden” model appeared nearly two years ago in Twin Lakes Elementary School in Hialeah, however “it was not exactly a Food Forest”, said Eduardo Recinos, head of The Education Fund CNI program, a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing scholarships to schools so they can transform their garden spaces into authentic “Food Forests.”

“Now we’re continuing to improve and perfect the model at Kelsey L. Pharr Elementary School in Liberty City,” Recinos said. “In this ‘Food Forest,’ which has been ready for less than two months, we’re already harvesting some of the crops and we’re already able to eat some of the leaves.”

This model has also been put into use recently in some of the predominantly Hispanic and disadvantaged areas of Hialeah (Joella C. Good Elementary), Miami Gardens (Charles D. Wyche Elementary and Parkview Elementary Miami), Homestead (Laura C. Sanders Elementary), North Miami (Gratigny Elementary, William Jennings Bryan Elementary and North Miami Elementary), El Portal (Phyllis R. Miller Elementary) and Opa-Locka (Nathan B. Young Elementary).

An “edible forest” or “Food Forest” is not like “a school crop or an edible garden” because its growth is handled in a different way than that of an orchard. They employ sustainable methods of gardening which require little maintenance and produce food products the entire year. “In this case, the characteristic climate of Miami is used so that fruits, aromatic herbs and vegetables can grow on their own as they would in a natural forest,” explained Recinos.

Recently, more than 100 families received free bags of fresh produce which was harvested in a “Food Forest” at Kelsey L. Pharr Elementary School. Local chef Timon Balloo, a James Beard award winner, also shared his recipes and explained how to eat the products and convert them into delicious dishes.

The Education Fund initiative was created in 1985 and its goal is to provide food weekly to students and their families as well as to have some of the produce used in school lunches. “It’s about involving parents and the community. It’s a program established in low-income neighborhoods which are full of unhealthy fast food joints and which experience low school attendance,” Recinos said. “Besides, the food harvested in the “Food Forest” can’t be found anywhere else.”

Some of these include: the moringa tree, which has leaves that contain complete protein; the “chayas” spinach, which is easy to cook; the Japanese Okinawa spinach, which grows without having to be watered; as well as the Surinam variety, the hibiscus, the “Cauoc” which can be found near the shade of trees; the Indian lettuce, which is six feet tall and can be found either in the shade or in the sun and doesn’t burn with the summer heat.

A standout among the native plants: the tomato of the Everglades variety. It’s peculiar because it grows rapidly like an herb. There are also different types of sprouts and Caribbean fruits such as papaya, plantains, citric fruits and “mamey.” Other nutritious fruits include the Hawaiian Breadfruit, which is used similarly to a potato, and can be eaten boiled or fried, and has a similar taste to the Jackfruit.

“You can eat the seed which contains all of the fruit’s nutrition, its protein and fat. It grows large and arrived at the Caribbean from Asia,” Recinos said.

A “Food Fest” is based on “trees, shrubbery and plants, which live three or more years because in that way we don’t have to start all over again each year as can happen with some crops. Many of the vegetables come from Southeast Asia since its climate is very similar to ours. Plants can survive in the heat of summer,” Recinos said.

It’s composed of five levels. In the highest level, trees are planted. It’s followed by another level reserved for smaller trees and shrubbery. In the third level, aromatic herbs such as rosemary and smaller shrubs are planted. There’s a level of vertical herbs such as vines that can grow on gates and close to other plants for support. And beneath the soil, root plants such as sweet potato, cassava, malanga, and tao (another vegetable similar to Malanga) grow.

The Education Fund’s mission statement is centered on the idea that the health of a community starts with the quality of its public schools, as a continuation of this it has including learning workshops for teachers within this program.

“We offer classes for teachers so they can know how to use the garden to create the Food Forest,” he said. “We show them how to measure the spaces they will need, how to use the different gardening tools and learn the science of it all. These activities are programmed so that children can spend more time outside the classroom.”

According to recent studies, these types of initiatives improve children’s intelligence levels. “All of the teachers, from the language arts teacher to the math teacher have noted this. They learn how to eat healthily, by eating organic food which is expensive and they don’t miss class the day that they’re scheduled to go to the ‘Food Forest’ and that’s why many teachers prefer to hold class outside every day.”

Kelsey L. Pharr Elementary is an example to follow for the 11 “Food Forest” projects, currently being built in Miami-Dade public schools, from now on.

The projects are underway thanks to the financial collaboration between Citi Garden and The Education Fund. The Education Fund’s donation is also sponsoring an expansion of a total of 40 programs in Miami-Dade elementary schools.

The 40 schools that will benefit in the future are located in different Hispanic neighborhoods in Little Havana, Miami Gardens, Westchester, North Miami and Hialeah.

In Little Havana: Auburndale Elementary, Comstock Elementary and Riverside Elementary. In Hialeah: Ben Sheppard Elementary, Ernest R. Graham K-8 Academy, John G. DuPuis Elementary, Spanish Lake Elem School and Palm Lakes Elementary. And in Miami Gardens: Brentwood Elementary, Carol City Elementary and Myrtle Grove K-8 Center.

In Westchester: Coral Park Elementary and Emerson Elementary. And in Sweetwater: Dr. Carlos Finlay Elementary and Charles Hadley Elementary. In North Miami: Arch Creek Elementary, Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary and North Miami Biscayne Gardens Elementary. And in Miami Shores, Arcola Lake Elementary. Frederick Douglass Elementary de Midtown and in Liberty City: Holmes Elementary, Model City Lenora B. Smith Elementary, Lillie C. Evans K-8 Center and Olinda Elementary.