Almanac

Cover Story - March 10, 2010

Gardening (to eat) at school

Sacred Heart Prep wins right to prepare and serve campus-grown food.

by Dave Boyce

A Web search for the sentence "I don't like fennel" retrieves 4,600 hits. For mustard greens, 9,700. For radicchio, 1,200.

Such sentiments were probably not felt by reporters and local officials gathered at Atherton's Sacred Heart Preparatory High School on Wednesday, March 3, where all of these vegetables are grown in the school's 6-year-old organic garden. Two of the vegetables — radicchio and mustard greens — were on the menu for breakfast. They went fast.

The school had invited the visitors to celebrate its newly acquired right to prepare and serve campus-grown food, including eggs, a first for a school in San Mateo County. The Environmental Health Services Division gave the school the green light in December.

With that recognition comes another: As of March 3, Sacred Heart is the first school in the nation to receive the top green-building award, a spokeswoman said. The new Science and Student Life Center received a platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) award from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Sacred Heart's extra garden produce is donated to those in need, including St. Anthony's Padua Dining Room in Redwood City, Sandwiches on Sundays in Menlo Park, and Food Not Bombs in San Francisco, school spokeswoman Annie Berlin said.

The menu for the celebration reflected the season and included radicchio braised with bacon and rosemary, radicchio fritters, Swiss chard frittata, braised mustard greens, and blue-corn muffins.

That it went fast and that such food probably goes fast every day there is easily explained. For one thing, it should not be called food. The more deserving term is cuisine.

The school has a food service contract with Los Altos-based Epicurean Group, which has institutional clients throughout the Bay Area.

Still, it seems natural that students would object to fennel, which tastes like black licorice, and radicchio, which is bitter. Epicurean's Jim Julian said the staff is not intimidated and discusses food with students. "We introduce things (in the spirit of) not being afraid, and not being afraid to reintroduce them," he said. "You kind of build that excitement about it."

Some students also get their hands dirty. Those who take Human Geography and Environmental Science, an elective taught by history teacher and student garden coordinator Stewart Slafter, work the garden and learn of worldwide patterns of agriculture and different concepts of what constitutes food.

The average Byelorussian, for example, eats 400 pounds of potatoes a year, Mr. Slafter said.

What do students take away? "At the very least," Mr. Slafter said, "they know what it is to plant carrot seeds and weed and see the seeds germinate and nurse the crop and harvest it and know how meticulous a process that is."

The program is modeled on the edible schoolyard, an idea pioneered by celebrity chef Alice Waters. Sacred Heart's 10,000-square-foot section of schoolyard is definitely edible. An innocent looking patch of weeds turned out to be sukiyaki greens and borage. One taste and you'll want them in your backyard.

Mr. Slafter and students also maintain a flock of egg-laying chickens, three goats and some rabbits.

While the goats help dispose of campus green waste, the animals also contribute valuable manure to the compost, which is segregated to prevent animal protein from finding its way to ground where food is grown, Mr. Slafter said.

Student views

Freshmen Johnathan Louie of Menlo Park and Bridgette Harper of South San Francisco take a global studies class at Sacred Heart and toured the garden with reporters.

Asked if he has a home garden, Johnathan replied: "I have room for a garden, but do I have the time? No." And his parents? "No," he added. "We're a very busy family."

Bridgette said her home has a small garden, which Mr. Slafter has inspired her to expand.

(For the record, a Web search for the sentence "I don't like tomatoes" yielded 99,000 hits.)

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