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The little garden with big hopes

Sept./Oct. 2009 California Country magazine

Sacramento's “WE Garden in Capitol Park” is the first edible garden at a state capitol in the country.



Agriculture teacher Dane White walked through the greenhouse at Galt High School one spring day and plucked a tiny strawberry from a plant near the front door. He handed it to one of the students responsible for growing it, who then devoured his “class project” almost immediately.


First lady Maria Shriver, center, California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura, right, and other dignitaries, kids, farmers and chefs helped plant the first edible school garden on the California State Capitol grounds. The "WE Garden in Capitol Park" includes more than a dozen different types of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers like the ones Galt High School FFA student Katelyn Seifert, left, helped grow from seedlings.

Growing, harvesting and eating fresh fruits and vegetables—it’s so simple that even a child can do it. An elementary observation to many is actually a new resource for teachers, providing a springboard to teach about a variety of subjects while also offering an incentive for students to work toward a common goal.

School gardens aren’t a new concept. In fact, as early as 1909 Montessori was espousing gardening as a way to increase youngsters’ appreciation for nature and to develop desirable traits like patience and responsibility.

 

But school gardens took on a new significance in the 1970s and ’80s, especially in the Bay Area, when famed Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters urged schools to grow their own produce and use it in cooking projects.

In recent years, state and local grants have become available for gardens, and groups like the California School Garden Network, California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom and the National Farm to School Network have played a key role in teaching children to plant and put the world at their fingertips.

“Gardens teach children so many important lessons, from academic achievement to healthy lifestyles. It is the ideal outdoor classroom,” said Tim Alderson, California School Garden Network chairman.


The WE Garden project has helped young people like Skycrest Elementary student Tevin Croff and Galt High School FFA student Jake Seifert learn about the connection between their food and the land.

And this past spring, these groups were buoyed by arguably the most famous gardener in the state rolling up her shirt sleeves (and pants legs) and getting down and dirty in a school garden. California’s first lady Maria Shriver, along with other dignitaries, kids, farmers and chefs, helped plant an edible school garden on the grounds of the State Capitol.

“The main goal with this garden is for kids to understand what they put in their bodies, how it’s grown, why it’s important and the sense of community it can offer them,” Shriver said. “It is also to help them understand this state is more than what they see on TV. We grow much of the food eaten in this country.”

Sacramento’s “WE Garden in Capitol Park” is the first edible garden at a state capitol in the country and was inspired by a field trip Shriver took six years ago when her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, assumed the office of governor.

“One of the first things I did as first lady was go visit Alice Waters’ famous Edible Schoolyard,” Shriver remembered. “I was so impressed by what the kids were learning that I wanted to duplicate it in a small way in every school in the state.”


Maria Shriver told the crowd assembled for the May 21 unveiling of the new garden that "I am a big believer that everything you need to know in life, you can learn in the garden."

So Shriver partnered with the California School Garden Network and came up with the idea for the Capitol Garden, dubbed the WE Garden to coincide with Shriver’s ongoing outreach program. Called “It’s up to WE,” the program isn’t just a poor grammatical stab at positive reinforcement. It represents Shriver’s way of enlisting all Californians to solve critical issues together and build one California in which WE Connect, WE Care, WE Build, WE Lead and now—WE Garden.

“Imagine what would happen if all the legislators came together and gardened. Imagine all that they could learn about food and people,” Shriver asked the crowd gathered for the unveiling of the new garden. “I am a big believer that everything you need to know in life, you can learn in the garden.”


On July 29 Galt High School agriculture teacher Dane White (in blue shirt) and his students donated the WE Garden’s first harvest to the Sacramento Loaves and Fishes program, which provides services to those in need.

All of the vegetables, herbs and flowers for the 800-square-foot demonstration garden were grown from seedlings donated by local school and community gardens, including White’s students at Galt High School. They, along with Skycrest Elementary School students, transplanted the first crops into the garden. Pledged donations from additional partners will ensure that the crops will be rotated in and out of production as the seasons change, at no cost to the state.

“I actually didn’t grow up as a healthy eater,” Shriver revealed during an impromptu news conference in front of the newly planted garden. “I have struggled with food all of my life. But I want to teach my kids what I wasn’t taught about eating healthy and how important it is to fuel your body with healthy produce that they can take part in growing themselves.”

The sustainable garden will be maintained by the California Department of General Services, and a possible partnership with UC Master Gardeners is being looked at to create an additional educational component. What’s more, all of the produce harvested is being donated to the Sacramento Loaves and Fishes program, which provides services to those in need.

So while Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden at the White House may be the most high-profile garden in the country, many see the little garden at the California State Capitol as a big hope for educating kids and adults about the benefits and pleasures of growing your own food.

“Our Capitol is one of the most visited places in California, second only to Disneyland,” Shriver said. “So my hope is that everyone that comes to the Capitol will learn about the state and see what can happen when we come together to create something that’s important to us all.”

Oct. 25-31 is California School Garden Week!

The California School Garden Network is encouraging schools throughout the state to host garden activities and events to celebrate the success of school gardens across California. To view lesson plans developed by the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom, go to www.cfaitc.org/wegarden. You can also download “Gardens for Learning,” a comprehensive school garden guidebook from www.csgn.org.

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or tsellers@californiacountry.org.

 


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