When Amanda Rieux started the Mala’ai, the Culinary Gardens at Waimea Middle School, she didn’t have tools, water or a shed, much less a semblance of a garden.

“It was literally a windswept field,” says Rieux, garden leader at the school. So she and her students spent time talking about the land.They discussed the sandalwood trees that became railroad ties on the mainland, the kikuya grass that crowded out the native grasses, and the military history of the site. And they talked about what they wanted to grow.

“At first it was really wide open,” Rieux, says. “We started with a field and some ideas, and it grew from there.”

Where Does Food Come From?

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The interest in edible schoolyards has escalated dramatically in recent years. On Hawai`i Island, as many as 30 new programs are under way. Statewide concerns about childhood obesity, proper nutrition and future sustainability remain driving forces for most programs. Garden coordinators all had anecdotes of children who knew little about the natural world—kids who can’t recognize a freshly harvested carrot, kids who have never played in dirt—and they had great faith in the process, that growing and nurturing a plant can impart lessons that apply to curricula, but also connect kids to the `aina and a larger world.

Educators also say that gardening can provide an antidote to classroom stress, and it can aid those who find traditional methods of learning difficult, says Nancy Redfeather, garden coordinator at the Kohala Center. A former educator, Redfeather says schoolyard gardens are especially valuable for students who learn by doing. The obvious models
are in biology and botany, but lessons can be adapted for language arts, the physical sciences, nutrition and sustainability.

“An immense amount of learning can take place,” Redfeather says. “On one hand [gardening] is a practical skill you could use in many ways. But it connects you with the land and your food in a whole new way. Because we have lost touch with where our food comes from.We think it comes from the frozen food aisle at Costco and Mom brings
it home and she microwaves. But it’s a really long distance between home garden and frozen food aisle at Costco. It would be good to come more toward the center.”

At Lahainaluna High School on Maui, Carol Rosetta marries biology and agriculture, teaching her kids about food choices and nutrition but also food production, the social implications of agriculture and genetically modified organisms.

“I may start out asking them something as simple as ‘Where does your meat come from?’” Rosetta says. “And some will say, ‘The grocery store.’ But then, they have to do research.”

She teaches them to read labels and to research the origins of everyday products like tofu, or coffee. In turn, they learn about fair trade, coffee or soybean production and the complications of our modern food supply. Rosetta says “a lot” of her students have changed their eating habits. Some have even altered their families’ eating habits. “They are much more aware of sustainable agriculture,” Rosetta says.

A Growing Movement

The modern concept of edible schoolyards comes from powerhouse chef Alice Waters. In 1994, she and a Berkeley middle school principal, Neil Smith, took over an asphalt lot next to the school and eventually turned it into a model of schoolyard organic sustainability. The garden program integrates curricula for students, creates an environment for healthy eating and enforces Waters’ credo that healthy food not only tastes good, it fosters community.

In Hawaii, many schools had gardens that served the community beyond the basics of education. Dairies on school grounds provided milk for the community, school gardens provided food to the cafeteria. Due to high liability and modern food processing, the majority of school milk now comes from the mainland and many schools don’t
have the means to prepare food onsite. Programs that once taught kids how to manage a dairy may now focus on other aspects of Hawaiian life, such as golf course maintenance.

But a few are turning things around. A handful of successful programs— both private and public—do exist and fledgling programs are emerging. Helping to coordinate efforts on O`ahu is the Kokua Hawai`i Foundation.

The brainchild of musician Jack Johnson and his wife, Kim, `Aina in Schools (`AINA IS) began as a pilot program in 2006 with five schools, `Aikahi, Makaha, Sunset Beach, Wai`alae andWheeler Elementary Schools. The program, which hopes to reach out to more schools beginning in 2008, sought to address three main goals: childhood obesity
and healthy eating habits, environmental stewardship and creating an institutional market for Hawaii’s farmers and their produce. Programs at Wheeler and Makaha were already in place when the program began, says Kaliko Amona, program coordinator for `AINA IS.

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback so far,” Amona says. “But we are still trying to figure out how to meet the variety of school needs. Because every school is different, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and we are still trying to figure out the best way to provide support.”

The hurdles to creating a school garden are numerous but the most challenging ones are funding and support. Even funded programs with paid garden educators need support from principals and staff. Teachers, already pressed for time and under pressure with increasing standardized tests, may not want to alter their curricula. Custodial staff may not want to water. And funding for a new shovel when some kids can’t afford lunch? In the hierarchy of needs, school garden programs may be last in a long line.

Garden educators often work in isolation, unaware of the program two miles away. Too few tools, too little knowledge, too little support—they survive on the chutzpah and the good will of volunteers. But it doesn’t seem to
dampen the enthusiasm of those parent/educators like Margaret Gill, who works at Hanalei School in Kaua`i.

“We wish we could have more time with them, but better yet, the kids wish we could have more time,” says Gill, who began twice-weekly classes in October. “They come at recess, they come at lunch. They water, they weed, they would come every day if they could.”

In her classes, which she coteaches with Joni Nuhi, they aim to expose their kids to a broader range of healthy produce, in addition to lessons on native plants. And Gill says they will “gobble up” vegetables like raw radishes and baby bok choy.

“Kids are far more likely to eat a food they’ve grown,” Gill says, echoing the sentiments of garden educators around the state. “It’s something they have planted and attended to, and they are not only are interested, they are clamoring over each other just to taste it. It has exposed them to a broader a range of foods and they see how delicious it is when food is not just from the garden, but in the garden.”

Strengthening Island Roots

Three years later atMala’ai, with school and community support, Rieux now has a garden that provides lessons in science, social science, sustainability, math and nutrition to hundreds of kids a year. In the roughly 70 garden classes a quarter, they have grown vegetables and trees, built bamboo windbreaks, made snacks from the garden, learned
seed-saving and composting. She works with Kuma Hula Pua Case to incorporate the Hawaiian language and the model for Hawaiian agriculture in each lesson, which Rieux says teaches kids respect for the land and the connectedness to all the elements.

The kids at Mala’ai begin each day with two minutes of silence and Hawaiian wisdom words, which they reflect upon while working in the garden. At the end of the session, each student shares their experience with the group.

“They look at these [Hawaiian] concepts and apply them to themselves,” says Rieux, who taught at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. “It helps to personalize the experience and the culture that is here…. By knowing the world around us, we imbue the things that exist around us with meaning.”