Edible Tales of Alice, Zilda and Others Who Changed Our Notion of Schoolyard Play … Forever

5424168213_f19b2229db_o.jpgAsk a Baby Boomer (or, quite frankly, anyone over the age of 30) about their memories of recess in elementary school, and you’ll hear tales of baskets shot, epic “four-square” matches, rotational “next up” baseball games, jumping rope, knees rubbed raw on asphalt while playing jacks, or simply hanging out over by the fence pretending to be cool. 

And how about all that gardening we did?


But today tending a garden, picking a plump berry, and watching the real fruits of one’s labor grow before your eyes has become part of the schoolyard experience in thousands of schools.

Let’s pause for a moment to pay homage to the visionaries who helped make it happen, and encourage every Wellness Warrior of any age to see to it that the “where food comes from” and “what fresh tastes like” movement is alive and well in your neighborhood.


Not to drop a few big names (ok, I will), this writer remembers being present at a lunch with Alice Waters, founder of the iconic farm-and-forager-to-table restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and Deborah Szekely, founder of the Golden Door and co-founder of Rancho La Puerta. The two women chatted about health issues in America, all the while nibbling on dishes that were rushed to the table for Chef Waters’ approval (dinner was in the planning stages and recipes were being created on the spot to honor the day’s deliveries of fresh foods from an array of local purveyors).  

I have my own fond memories of tiny pea shoots, quickly sauté’d in olive oil—the first time I’d every tasted a pea that wasn’t…a pea. Heaven.

Ms. Waters’ The Edible Schoolyard project, created in 1996 at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, was about five years old at the time. As we ate, we heard the story of how Waters passed a then-bleak playground every day on her way to work. She mentioned the schoolyard’s sad condition in an interview with a local paper. The principal of the school immediately called and asked her to help.

The remarkable story of how the King, Jr., schoolyard became a lush “farm” with full staff, a marvelous teaching kitchen that also serves as a central kitchen for all 16 schools in the district, and a model that has inspired thousands of visitors to take the idea home to their schools—is as fresh today as it was in then. When you realize that the first students, now grown and in their late thirties, still return to pay homage to their memory of the garden, you realize the full potential of how life-changing the mere act of gardening and learning to cook fresh, good food … can be.

Would you like an “Edible Schoolyard” in your district? Find out how to be the 4,123 location in the world of this remarkable movement.  

5424173013_70cd1c800d_o.jpgEdible schoolyards are not, however, a new idea. In Europe the concept dates to the early 1800s. In the U.S. one can find multiple lineages: a good history with a Southern California slant can be found in a story by Rose Hayden-Smith in Kitchen Gardeners International . She details the work of Ventura, California, schoolteacher Zilda M. Rogers who wrote of her work with students in 1909:

With the love of the school garden has grown the desire for a home garden and some of their plots at home are very good … Since commencing the garden work the children have become better companions and friends … and to feel that there is a right way of doing everything … it is our garden … We try to carry that spirit into our schoolroom.”

In Boston, The Food Project can trace its roots to schoolyards in the early 1890s. Today the program has a 40 acre farm which may not be at a school itself, but IS a school where over 100 teenagers incorporate sustainable agriculture into their learning experience.

At GreenHeart Education, teachers find resources on ways to start a gardening program with their young charges—as well as involving their parents, a crucial component to the success of any school garden project.

America in Bloom details how to obtain a government subsidy to start a gardening project through the USDA.

Jamba Juice is now offering garden grants under their “It’s All About the Fruits and Veggies” campaign.


Of course this only scratches the surface. Quick searches will help you pull up—like fresh carrots!—many hundreds of resources in the school gardens movement.

In the end, any movement is not about how many statistics one can generate. The world of gardening always comes down to the most important moment of all: a child picking a cherry tomato and popping it into her mouth, and the look of wonder…and delight…that follows.

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