Twenty years ago, Alice Waters was quoted in a local newspaper, claiming that the school she passed every day looked like no one cared about it. Neil Smith, then principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, contacted Alice with the acre of blighted land on the school's grounds firmly in mind. He wanted her to see the school and perhaps find a way to help. It was clear to Alice: she wanted to start a garden and build a teaching kitchen that could become tools for enriching the curriculum and life of the school community. Neil and Alice met with the faculty and the idea slowly began to take form. Teachers Phoebe Tanner and Beth Sonnenberg envisaged teaching fractions in the kitchen as a way of making math interactive, and growing heirloom grains in the garden as a way of teaching early civilizations. Parent volunteer Beebo Turman motivated the community, which, in turn, invited family and friends to begin the transformation from asphalt to an Edible Schoolyard.
Recognizing the potential of the idea, Zenobia Barlow and the Center for Ecoliteracy provided funding for the Edible Schoolyard Berkeley's (ESY Berkeley) first full-time garden director, David Hawkins. Within two years, more than an acre of asphalt was cleared, a cover crop was planted, and David and his first group of students spent the summer in the garden "building the bones."
In the fall of our third year, the kitchen became a reality. We hired our kitchen director, a chef named Esther Cook, who continues to teach at ESY Berkeley to this day. Teachers, parents and community members came together to clear away garbage and cobwebs, and the abandoned school cafeteria became the kitchen classroom.
Many of the school’s teachers, increasingly comfortable with hands-on learning, collaborated with David and Esther to generate garden and kitchen lessons linked to classroom studies. The Center for Ecoliteracy supported science and math teacher Jay Cohen to write lessons, and teacher Akemi Hamai to liaise with the school. Classroom teachers began scheduling regular class time with their students in the garden and kitchen.
By year five, ESY Berkeley taught ten 90-minute classes a week in both the garden and kitchen. We hired Marsha Guerrero to oversee the program and our staff grew to eight. English teacher Josie Gerst made it possible for us to host traditional school celebrations such as Family Writing Night and the English Language Learners Dinner, expanding our relationship with the broader school community.
As the garden grew so did the program. Students cleared trees and brush to place two 3,500-gallon cisterns that collect the rainwater that irrigates our lower orchard. We built a chicken coop for our expanding flock of chickens and ducks and, this past year, students used more than 500 eggs in the kitchen classroom. Our annual Mother’s Day Plant Sale has become a significant community and fundraising event. In addition to our summer program for students, ESY Berkeley hosts a teaching academy for educators from around the United States and the world who want to begin or further develop edible education programs in their communities.
Over the past 17 years, ESY Berkeley has not only become an integral part of life at King Middle School, but also an important teaching institution and model of edible education that has inspired national and international programs. Each year we host over 1,000 visitors who experience the program's impact for themselves. Guests have included HRH Prince of Wales, California Governor Jerry Brown, multiple state senators, California’s Secretary of Agriculture, and the U.S. Surgeon General. For the 2005 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, we brought the Edible Schoolyard to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The site was visited by one million people.
Today, ESY Berkeley is lush with more than 100 varieties of seasonal vegetables, herbs, vines, berries, flowers, and fruit trees. Our staff includes five teachers, two AmeriCorps members, and two administrative positions – fully supported by the Edible Schoolyard Project. A robust corps of 30 volunteers generously supports our work. We have served over 7,000 students, who often return to tell us that what they remember most about middle school is the time they spent in the Edible Schoolyard.
In 1996, in celebration of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café's 25th anniversary, Alice created the Chez Panisse Foundation. The non-profit envisioned a public school curriculum that includes hands-on experiences in school kitchens, gardens, and lunchrooms, and that provides healthy, freshly prepared meals as part of each school day. To support this vision, the foundation fully funded the Edible Schoolyard Berkeley and developed two additional programs: the School Lunch Initiative and the Edible Schoolyard Affiliate Network, now the Founding Edible Schoolyards.
Right there, in the middle of every school day, lies time and energy already devoted to the feeding of children. We have the power to turn that daily school lunch from an afterthought into a joyous education, a way of caring for our health, our environment, and our community. – Alice Waters, Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea
The fully realized vision of edible education has always been to mirror the lessons of the kitchen and garden classroom at ESY Berkeley with real food served in the lunchroom. In 2003, the Chez Panisse Foundation partnered with the Berkeley Unified School District and the Center for Ecoliteracy to implement a model for this vision. After three years of on-the-ground work, this collaboration transformed what 10,000 Berkeley public school children are offered for breakfast and lunch in school, and how they learn about food every day.
The new Dining Commons at King Middle School now serves as the central kitchen for all 16 schools in the district, providing 10,000 meals per day, made with wholesome, fresh, and mostly organic ingredients. Designed to engage students, the Dining Commons features on-site composting, recycling stations, and real tableware. The Dining Commons presents myriad opportunities to connect garden, kitchen, classroom, and lunchroom experiences.
In 2010, the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley released an evaluation report of the School Lunch Initiative and its impact on children’s attitudes, behavior, and knowledge towards food. The results confirmed our anecdotal experience that indeed when children are engaged in the growing, harvesting, and preparing of food they are far more likely to eat it. The School Lunch Initiative is recognized nationally as an innovative and effective food service program that continues to inspire reform.
In 2005, the Chez Panisse Foundation envisioned an affiliate program to demonstrate the universality of an edible education. Our affiliation with likeminded programs illustrates that the experience of ESY Berkeley is applicable anywhere; across a variety of settings, within diverse communities, climates, and scales. These Founding Edible Schoolyards share our goal of bringing children into a positive relationship with food by connecting it with nature and culture. Good health is the outcome.