Food for Thought?

As administrators struggle to engage wayward teenagers (they’re all wayward) and make learning meaningful after hours, one can imagine a school turning an unused plot of grass on the grounds into a working garden.  Some students could cultivate crops while others head to football and band practice. They could even run it as a business, opening a market on Saturdays and picking up a bit of logistics and finance to go with the botany. Getting a few credits for the work wouldn’t interfere with calculus and U.S. history, either, and it might improve attitudes toward school in general.

That isn’t what happened at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, CA, though. When famed chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse offered to plant a garden in a barren lot next to the school, she envisioned a lot more than a little extra-curricular agri-business for the kids. She wanted the whole curriculum.  As Waters explained to the Los Angeles Times last year, “Now we need a curriculum that’s about ecology and about gastronomy so that we can make sure that children are making the right kinds of decisions for themselves, and for the planet.”

Today MLK Jr. Middle School has a one-acre organic garden and kitchen that serve as a working classroom, and it’s not just an add-on initiative.  Part of the Chez Panisse Foundation, the project has a catchy title, The Edible Classroom, and the home page forthrightly declares the ambition: “Classroom teachers and Edible Schoolyard educators integrate food systems concepts into the core curriculum.” Students work the garden and staff the kitchen and learn other subjects along the way. Another page on the Web site gives an example:

“After months of hard work, we are proud to unveil our new Rainwater Catchment System, with a 6,000 gallon capacity. For every inch of rain, we harvest and store 200 gallons of water, and limit the contamination of our Codornices Creek Watershed and the San Francisco Bay. This hands-on, educational tool is illustrating issues of stormwater runoff, pollution, erosion, and providing a real world application of core mathematical concepts.”

In the kitchen, students “experience culture, history, language, ecology, and mathematics through the preparation of food.” Edible Schoolyard offers lesson plans for teachers—the math one is called “Making Mathematics Delicious,” and 6th-graders studying early humans can make “Neolithic Fruit Salad” using Stone Age tools.

Caitlin Flanagan profiles the initiative in The Atlantic magazine this month, and she, too, recounts the whole-curriculum approach. “In English class students composed recipes,” she says, “in math they measured the garden beds, and in history they ground corn as a way of studying pre-Columbian civilizations.”

It sounds so nice, so inspiring, and who would be bilious enough to argue against teaching young people to love the earth? And who doesn’t appreciate the accomplishment of Alice Waters (even the French honor her)? As Flanagan notes, Waters has received non-stop accolades for her school support—a 1998 Excellent in Education Award from her state’s senator, Barbara Boxer, an Education Heroes Award from the U.S. Dept of Ed, and an exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian on the National Mall devoted to Edible Schoolyard.

For all the admiration, though, in education only outcomes count. Flanagan again:

“According to the 2009 Federal Accountability Requirements, statewide, more than 39 percent of Latinos are proficient in English and 44 percent in math, but at the King school, those numbers are a dismal 30 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Where do Berkeley’s African American and Hispanic middle-schoolers do well? At a gardenless charter school called Cal Prep, where 92 percent of the students are black or Latino, where the focus is on academic achievement, and where test scores have been rising steadily.”

That explains the title of The Atlantic piece, “Cultivating Failure.” Waters has the momentum of her extraordinary prestige and educational faddishness behind her, and California schools now boast 3,849 gardens. Once again, however, we come to the hard question. How do we know that a garden-based instruction in math and reading works better than the old-fashioned way? On the List of Publications page of appear eight volumes, but not one of them mentions any data on effectiveness, instead providing mostly statements of philosophy and “principles.” To cite an example about as far from Chez Panisse as one can go, “Where’s the BEEF?”

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