High school program combines garden, cooking to teach nutrition

March 11, 2010

By Nik Bonovich

The smell of sautéing vegetables, chicken and eggs fill a steamy kitchen as students prepare fried rice for lunch at Grant High School in Sacramento’s Del Paso Heights neighborhood. With money raised from outside grants, government funding and other resources, Grant High School has been able to run an edible garden and kitchen on campus.

The garden was a brainchild of teacher Anne Marie Kennedy in 1999. At the time she was a graduate student at UC Davis who worked with a biology teacher to start the garden. A year later, Kennedy was hired on as a fulltime teacher and in the last 10 years the school garden blossomed into a community garden, a kitchen and a GEO Environmental Science and Design Academy. In the academy students take courses in nutritious cooking, environmental science, landscape architecture and manage a salsa business.

“It’s quite astonishing how these kids have never harvested fresh vegetables. After a cooking class I hear, ‘I am going to make that at home.’ I hear that every time we cook,” said Kennedy. “There are a lot of things in education that we see that just go ok, but kids are so responsive when learning how to cook.”

Grant High School students in Sacramento work in the school's student kitchen.

Bringing cooking back into the classroom harkens back to the days of “home economics.” But this program is different. It is not a full service program of everything you do at home, but a focus on gardening, nutrition, cooking and health.

One of the cooking teachers is Fatima Malik, a 2004 graduate of Grant High School and the GEO Academy. After graduating from Grant, Fatima attended UC Davis and while visiting Grant High School, Kennedy recommended her to the Health Education Council, a non-profit that works in underserved communities to promote health. Her main responsibility is working at Grant High School, but the Heath Education Council pays for her salary.

“When I started working here, we were at the brink. We had a lot of high quality pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, but nobody was using it and it was going to waste,” said Malik. “I was cooking on Friday, it was fun Friday cooking for the sake of using the some of the vegetables out of the garden. It was very makeshift. We had plug in skillets and plastic utensils.”

We want to foster a positive community, where students can be themselves and pursue a higher education.
What the garden really needed was a kitchen to cook the food. Students either didn’t want to take the fresh food home or they didn’t know what to do with it. The students not only needed to know how to grow healthy food and what healthy food is, but how to use it and make it taste good.

In 2007, the Kaiser Family Foundation awarded a grant to build a kitchen in a classroom next to the garden. The kitchen has four full service cook stations, with a stove, oven, sink and dishwasher. As the kitchen was being built, the GEO Environmental Science and Design Academy was developed.

A key component to the GEO Academy is a salsa business that students run. A farmer donates tomatoes in winters and the salsa is bottled in Sonoma. Students sell the salsa at farmers markets, the Co-Op in Sacramento and Davis and Taylor’s Market in the Land Park neighborhood of Sacramento. Proceeds are then used for an either an end of the year trip or scholarships.

At the garden on Grant’s campus, hundreds of pounds of vegetables and fruit are produced each year. No one has been keeping track of the precise amounts, but there is more than enough food for the cooking program during most of the year. About 300-400 students and members of the community use the kitchen each year. Extra food is either taken home by students or free for people from the community to use.

Students from the GEO Academy utilize the kitchen the most, but students throughout Grant use the kitchen when taking a health course.

The garden at Grant High School in Sacramento. Students cook food from the garden in a school kitchen.

Tamyzia Robinson, 16, said she enjoys the class because she gets to make her own food, try new things and it’s important to know about healthy eating. “When we make it at home it comes in a box already,” said Robinson. “Here we get to make it from scratch.”

It’s a nice divergence from the usual textbook learning that most students are exposed to and students see the tangible results. “They teach us lifelong skills like cooking,” said Shaft Wesley, 15.

“We eat better stuff. It’s tasty and healthy,” said Michael Gonzalez, 17. “And it’s better than the cafeteria.”

But it’s a challenge to sustain funding for the kitchen. In the last two years, the Sutter Health Foundation has helped keep the kitchen open. “Right now the funding is up in the air,” said Malik. “Grants will give you money to start it and expand it, but never money to sustain it and that is really a challenge.”

And with the current recession, funding sources are even tighter. In the landscape design students have made plans to redesign Grant’s landscape, but the designs are not being implemented because of a lack of funding.

Funding and resources have come from many different sources, from organizations such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, Sutter Health Foundation, United Way, the Health Education Council, Soil Born Farms, UC Davis, Sacramento State, and the city of Sacramento.

“All of these programs are like this. It’s so typical I am sorry to say. It is fragile,” said Kennedy. “On the other hand having a lot of partners contribute, you have lots of funding sources. If one partner goes away you have others there to sustain you. They can play roles and support different areas.”

It’s really fallen on the schools to help with teaching children nutrition and how to cook. “I’d like families to take care of it,” said Kennedy. “It’s really a shame it’s not a part of normal families life anywhere. And you can’t do it in a Doctor’s office.” Schools just don’t have the money to do everything, which is why the funding and support from outside sources is needed.

The Health Education Council has provided Malik and Toua Vang, a former Grant student and now a part time garden manager while he takes courses at a local community college. Soil Born farms, which promotes urban organic farming provides another instructor and the city of Sacramento employees former high school students to help out at Sacramento schools. UC Davis and CSU Sacramento bring interns studying nutrition that lead the cooking groups in the kitchen.

Without the additional help, Grant High School could not run day to day, and it’s even more beneficial to have former students come back. “By bringing back people who come from the neighborhood and have struggled economically they can really relate to the students,” said Kennedy. “We make sure we are really culturally sensitive to teaching nutritional health and education. The former students are really positive role models.”

There are also limitations to the program. Not every student enters the kitchen, and only a fraction of the student population participates in the GEO Academy.

“We are not serving the entire community of Del Paso Heights, but we are doing a huge part in transforming the healthy culture of the students in our program. The difference can be small, but the indirect impact can be great. If there is a student that wants to spearhead another movement, because they were inspired then they know how to get there,” said Malik. “We want to foster a positive community, where students can be themselves and pursue a higher education. We don’t do these things directly, but we create an environment so they can do that. We want them to be confident and healthy enough to function, to be disease free, to be healthy enough and not struggling with high blood pressure and suffer from chronic disease and pursue higher education and we are providing support for that.”

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