March 5, 2010

2 School Farms in 2 Days

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

This past weekend, I witnessed hundreds of volunteers working in a very tangible way to take back the food system for a community.  The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  This was a stride.  Two high schools in Richmond, Calif in the span of one weekend built urban school farms at their respective school sites.  Supported by Urban Tilth, those students, teachers, parents and community volunteers laid the infrastructure and built the capacity to grow significant amounts of local produce in Richmond. 

These are farms that will not just change the physical environment of the schools and the community, but significantly change the way students think about food.  This year, close to 30 students at Richmond High are enrolled in the second pilot year of an Urban Agriculture and Food Systems class, what we call Urban Ag Institutes, and those students will grow from seed thousands of pounds of produce, that will feed families from their high school.  Last year, the program had a small but impressive 10 family CSA box (community supported agriculture) and this year with the expansion of the farm at the high school, they hope to do even more. Article on RHS program

Just as exciting, across town at Kennedy High School, an even larger farm with thirteen 100 ft. rows were put in behind the football field.  Say bye-bye to the school garden and say hello to the school ‘farm!’  Imagine the depth of knowledge that will come as those students learn to manage a working urban farm.  Growing seasons, soil, pests, nutrition, food systems, marketing, community food security, advocacy, organics, cooking, and permaculture are just some of the topics that we will engage with students in the program.

I interviewed Park Guthrie, the Urban Ag Club teacher at Kennedy (slated to become an official Urban Ag Institute in fall of 2010) and his words speak volumes.  I wanted to know how he saw this program and these farms fitting into the food movement and the local food system of Richmond.  With the interwovenness of the American food system, was this solving access issues, food security, or generating behavioral change?  Park replied, “The truth is, I really think it all goes back to Wendell Berry.  It’s the most direct way to address a relationship problem.  It’s a relationship problem imbedded in so many facets of our culture.  The alienation between food, nature, natural cycles and community health.  I guess I feel like a production focused Urban Ag Institute Program solves that relationship problem.  It puts those teenagers in a completely new relationship with food, land, community and a general sense of power.  I think it does tangibly improve the Richmond food system, but maybe the most important way it affects the food system is in the relationship these teenagers have with food.”

I probed further because one of my issues with the present school garden movement is that people believe it will help with childhood obesity and the relationship between kids and food and much of the data shows that that’s not happening.  I asked him if for him it is about relationships, does it even matter how much food is being grown?

He replied, “Yes, I think there’s a critical mass.  It might be a hunch or anecdotal evidence, but scale does make a difference.  There’s something different between bringing home 10 pounds of produce once a week and bringing home a head of lettuce once a semester.  Both in terms of the teen’s sense of empowerment and the connections with the natural cycles.  It’s just a totally different scale.  There’s a wisdom of individuals.  It’s a different experience tending a 10 by 20 foot garden than it is tending a market garden.  There’s all kinds of different wisdoms that come out of that.”


And in the end, that is what we are hoping for.  We are searching to re-connect kids with food through wisdoms that they will gain themselves through the “seed to fork” growing of foods.  For those of you who read the Caitlin Flanigan piece in the Atlantic, it’s not about dumbing down a generation by pushing them into manual labor, it’s about creating individuals with holistic wisdoms of health, natural cycles, community relationships and service.  It is about empowering teens to take control of their food environment in the midst of uncontrolled forces working against their health.  There’s no scientific evidence of this yet (or none that I know of) but I also think there’s a very good chance that programs like the Urban Ag Institutes will actually help students achieve better academically.  It will increase their “buy in” to the school process, help their attention levels, and potentially change significant environmental factors linked to achievement.


The best part is that the city of Richmond and the community support these efforts. The mayor of Richmond, Gail McLoughlin came to both sites and spoke, state legislator Nancy Skinner cheered on the volunteers at Kennedy High School in the rain, city-council members Jim Rogers and Jeff Ritterman spoke eloquently, members of the administration of both schools were digging and shoveling, students and teachers were working together outside of class and parents and children were carrying loads of soil to fill up beds.  It was a moment.    

The Architects:

Doria Robinson:  Executive Director of Urban Tilth. Doria led the fundraising effort, securing significant donations from the Richmond Children’s Hospital, the Mitchell Kapour Foundation and invidivdual donors.  Doria brought the Mayor, Gail McLoughlin, City Councilmembers Jim Rogers and Jeff Ritterman and State Assembly Woman, Nancy Skinner, an avid gardener in her own right to the farm raising.  Managing the herculean task of logistical planning for 100 volunteers, volunteers were hear commenting, “that this was one of the best volunteer days I’ve ever been to, there was always work to be done, no one was standing around.” 

Park Guthrie:  Leading the effort at Kennedy High School, Park has a thriving urban agriculture club that will become a full-fledged course titled Urban Agriculture and Food Systems in the 2010/2011 school year.  Park is sheet-mulching his way to a better local food system.  As the former director of Urban Tilth, he’s now fomenting change from within the school system.

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl:  That’s me.  I was a former teacher at Richmond High.  Through a collaboration with Urban Tilth, I helped rehabilitate the RHS garden and begin the Urban Agriculture program at RHS.  I had the absolute pleasure of being the lead teacher in possibly Calfornia’s first Urban Agriculture course to develop a working CSA (community supported agriculture) at a public high school.  (Fact check necessary)  With deep connections to the staff and students at RHS, I helped the RHS ‘farm’raising on Sunday, Feb 28th be a success.


The Brick and Mortar

The Urban Tilth staff put in an amazing effort not just over the weekend, but the entire week of planning that led to the event.  Aaron Abelman and Jessie Alberto worked up the planting plan, and made all the material purchases for the event, including over 80 yards of soil that will be used to increase the organic material of both sites and start the farms off on the right foot before establishing permaculture techniques that will keep the soil fertile and full of nutrients into the future.

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