The Edible Schoolyard

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

For years doctors, nutritionists and parents have deplored the eating habits of American kids.

Visionary chef Alice Waters is actually doing something about it.

The idea: the Edible Schoolyard, a one-acre garden where sixth-, seventh- and eighth- graders at a Berkeley, Calif., public school have learned to grow, prepare, serve and eat fresh food since 1995. The model for many similar programs around the country, the Edible Schoolyard has been re-created on the Mall as part of the Smithsonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival, which began last week and resumes tomorrow through the Fourth of July.

It started almost 20 years ago, when Waters regularly passed the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on her way home from her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. At night, the school looked abandoned, with graffiti on the windows and sunburned grass. She wondered how that had happened -- especially in a community-minded place such as Berkeley.

The school's principal, teachers and even the school board shared her concerns -- and Waters, well known even then for her commitment to fresh seasonal cooking, got an idea: A sad, unused acre on the eastern side of the school was a perfect place for a garden. It could be a learning lab where children could experience the pleasures of fresh food, from seed to table. It might woo them away from empty calories.

The garden should be organic, ecologically sound, beautiful and wholly integrated into the school's curriculum and lunch program.

Today, that acre is rich with seasonal produce, vines and berries, herbs, flowers and fruit trees. There's a chicken coop and a compost area, a place to start seedlings, a toolshed, a wood-fired oven, a picnic area and a central space for meetings and conversations.

"It worked," said Waters by phone recently. "When the children grew [food] and cooked it, they wanted to eat it."

At the Folklife Festival, the latest Edible Schoolyard sits comfortably on the Mall between the museums. There, the festival's organizers have planted a temporary 120-by-80 foot garden of artichokes and arugula, tomatoes and tatsoi , cucumbers and cabbage, herbs and okra, fruit trees and flowers.

"We've done quite a few plantings over the years" of the festival, says the program's co-curator, Stephen Kidd. "Cornfields, rice paddies. But this is our most ambitious, both in variety and size."

Seeds were started in the Smithsonian greenhouse. Children from local programs with a similar philosophy -- the Washington Youth Garden at the National Arboretum, Brainfood and the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center -- helped plant the garden.

Docents -- including several teachers from the Martin Luther King Jr. schoolyard -- will be on the Mall to speak with festival-goers, who are encouraged to walk around the garden. Garden orientations are scheduled at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. during the festival.

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