Schoolyard to Market Sows Seeds for Empowered Eaters

Kayla Abe, CUESA Staff
April 15, 2016

On the edge of the cement ocean behind John O’Connell High School is a vibrant patch of dense greenery with a 10-foot tall sunflower and bright California poppies. Every Wednesday morning, students participating in the Schoolyard to Market program descend on the garden, donning gloves and rolling up pants, ready to get dirty weeding, rotating compost, and sowing seeds.

The semester-long gardening program is an elective class led by CUESA that provides students with hands-on food system education and entrepreneurship experience. They take field trips to local farms and farmers markets, and at the end of the course, they sell the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. But they’re not just growing produce; they’re cultivating job skills and a new perspective on food.

The Urban Oasis in a Tech Jungle

Nestled among industrial-chic cocktail bars and tech startups in San Francisco’s Mission District, O’Connell has felt the consequences of the shifting landscape in recent years. As families have been displaced from the area, student enrollment has declined. In the 2016-17 academic year, International Studies Academy, which has also experienced low enrollment, plans to merge with O’Connell at their Folsom street campus.

In a rapidly gentrifying city, O’Connell strives to stay relevant by focusing on integrated education and career preparedness. Schoolyard to Market fits into this outline by framing food industry entrepreneurship as an alternative path for success, and one highly relevant within the growing environmental movement. So with each spring rain and sunny sky, students at O’Connell look upon their budding home-grown produce not only with pride, but also entrepreneurial eyes.

Down and Dirty

Students move through the garden with ease, shifting from one task to the next under the instruction of Tessa Kappe, CUESA’s Education Program Coordinator and O’Connell’s Schoolyard to Market teacher. Watching them work, it’s hard to imagine the resistance O’Connell teacher and Schoolyard to Market support instructor Louis Chala observed when students began the course.

“In the first weeks, we had a hard time getting them to put gloves on, to be outside,” he recalls. “The first time we came to the garden, one girl was putting plastic bags over her shoes. But now, when they come here, they’re serious business. Before class at 8:10, they’re here waiting for us.”

Before long, the class’s two hours is up and students file back inside to biology class or social studies. The school garden feels like a magical retreat—one in which high schoolers munch on raw vegetables, where worms aren’t gross, but rather, collaborators in creating healthy soils. Although the garden may feel like an escape from the city, Tessa hopes to convey the opposite—that the students’ work here has tangible connections to the real world.

Food Revolution 101

While gardening may seem like an extracurricular activity, Schoolyard to Market’s learning objectives dig deep—part garden education, part entrepreneurship, and part Food Revolution 101. “There are a lot of crazy systems in place to get food to us,” Tessa says. “My goal is for the garden to be a jumping off point for students to develop an appreciation for the natural world, understand that’s where our food comes from, and hopefully feel empowered to make healthy choices.”

While talk of food systems can seem abstract, the consequences of a broken food system are very real. “The students we work with through Schoolyard to Market are under attack by our food system,” says Tessa. “But you can’t just say, ‘Hey guys, these chips are designed to make you unhealthy, and all these corporations just want to make money and are manipulating you with marketing.’ This class is an opportunity for students to learn a little bit more about why that is and offer them alternatives.”

For some students, making these connections helps them examine existing norms around food. Ben, a freshman and current student in Schoolyard to Market, sees the consequences of unhealthy eating habits among family members with nutrition-related diseases. “A lot of my family has diabetes because of too much sugar and fat in their diets,” Ben says. “I don’t want to be like that, having to take pills every day. It’s really bad, all this junk food. Nothing’s natural when you go to the store and buy it from a bag.”

His enthusiasm for Schoolyard to Market comes from getting a window into a world of fresh food choices. Ben is now working on bringing some healthier options to his family’s table by growing his own food in his apartment’s small communal garden. “Growing your own food, and knowing that it’s not made with [synthetic] fertilizers or anything is pretty cool.”

Making Farming Fun

“Cool” is a common takeaway among students who complete the Schoolyard to Market program, along with newfound interest in fresh produce and a willingness to try new foods. In course evaluations from students, 74% self-reported that they might shop at farmers markets for their groceries, while 86% said that they gained a better understanding of where their food comes from and how it’s produced.

Kat, a sophomore from last semester’s Schoolyard to Market course, left the class so enthused about farming that she is considering a career in the field. “I feel so accomplished because I’m growing something that’s living,” she explains.

Kat realized that a job could be both fulfilling and financially viable after seeing food artisans at the farmers market selling value-added products like marmalades from Happy Girl Kitchen Co., and taking a farm tour to Tierra Vegetables. “When I grow older, I want my parents to have a good life, and I want to give them that by going into farming,” she says. “I could spend time with them [on the farm] while doing something I enjoy.”

Opening students’ eyes to new career paths is an exciting outcome of the course, though for Tessa, garden-based education is a first step within a more holistic, systems-level agenda. “I think we’re all born naturally curious about nature, though growing up in a city, that connection can get lost,” says Tessa. “I hope this class can facilitate that connection again. And that’s one benchmark of success to me, just getting students to get their hands in the soil and enjoy it.”

Support local high school students at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market by shopping at the Schoolyard to Market booth in the back plaza on April 16, 23, and 30, and May 7 and 14.

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