In the mid-1990s, a woman in Berkeley, Calif., spotted graffiti on a school in her neighborhood and mourned the place’s neglected appearance.
Lucky for the school, that troubled neighbor was Alice Waters.
Waters owns the restaurant Chez Panisse, which, if you haven’t heard, is famous for inciting the Delicious Revolution — a movement toward menus based on seasonal ingredients grown in one’s figurative backyard.
Long story short, Waters took a special interest in the school, and soon the staff was breaking up blacktop to plant a garden.
A decade later, the garden at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School boasts a chicken coop, a table for propagating seeds and a ramada with straw-bale seating. Students make juice using an apple press, brew tea using a double boiler and even cook treats in an outdoor pizza oven.
That’s not all. They grind wheat, make butter, harvest produce and serve meals on tables adorned with flowers they’ve grown. And after lunch, they compost their food scraps.
The garden has become a central part of their curriculum. They call it The Edible Playground.
Now that’s just about the coolest story I’ve ever heard, but it’s not as cool as this one:
Tucson has its own edible playground movement.
Earlier this year, a Tucson woman named Nicole Christine enlisted two friends to help nurture a garden at her grandchildren’s Montessori school. The three called themselves the Green Grannies.
Hermosa Montessori School’s garden took off, with talk of a kid’s snack garden, a survival garden, a medicine wheel garden, an art garden and a banana greenhouse.
The women decided to take their project further — to see that every school in the Sonoran bioregion eventually has a drylands kitchen garden linked to the local food economy. To do that, they founded Sonoran Kitchen Gardens.
Sadly, Christine died in October. Another granny fell seriously ill and had to give up her organizational responsibilities. The third granny, Lindianne Sarno, pushed on.
In less than a year, Sonoran Kitchen Gardens has reached out to at least 25 schools, including Marana High and Lulu Walker. It also makes itself available to urban neighborhoods and places of worship.
“The reason we’ve decided to focus on schools is that we hope that from the schools word goes out to the homes,” Sarno said. “Tucson needs to be a community of 100,000 good-size gardens.”
Sarno’s inspiration for small-scale gardening came early in her adulthood when she lived in New York. She noticed that the city’s food supply arrived by truck and train, and she realized her city would be super-vulnerable if something happened to the tunnels and bridges.
Despite family expectations — she had a Princeton education — Sarno moved to rural Oregon to learn how to grow food. There, she learned to grow and sell salad greens and discovered that the self-sufficiency brought her a deep sense of security. She wanted others to feel it, too.
“The security I have in my person knowing I can go onto a bare piece of land and turn it into a food-producing Eden is exactly what I want to share,” she said.
These days, given frequent food scares and economic crisis, Sarno said food security is more important than ever.
When the Green Granny gives talks at schools, she tries to communicate the importance of cultivating an appreciation for the things money can’t buy — communion around a dinner table, music, fresh produce from a garden.
“I tell classes all true wealth is biological,” she said. “And I tell the kids, ‘You are a treasure. You are walking biological wealth.’”
It’s not difficult, she finds, to impart the value of gardening to children.
“Kids instinctively take to this,” she said. “They want to be up and about, doing things with their hands and solving problems. These are the tasks of the urban gardener.”
SONORAN KITCHEN GARDENS
Mission: To make sure every school in the Sonoran bioregion has a drylands kitchen garden linked into the local food economy.
Directors: Lindianne Sarno and Jaime DeZubeldia
The Edible Schoolyard
Center for Ecoliteracy