One day a week my Zen Center work includes leaving the well-ordered calm of our windbell meditation garden and heading east to Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where I work with a rowdy, rotating population of eleven- to fourteen-year-olds and their dedicated teachers cultivating a one-acre Edible Schoolyard garden in the heart of north Berkeley.

“A school garden carries the life of the community,” proclaims a 1909 pamphlet on suggestions for garden work in California schools. This has been true for the Edible Schoolyard since its conception in 1995, when a local resident and the founder of Chez Panisse restaurant, Alice Waters, met with King Middle School principal Neil Smith to plan not only a garden within the school community but a school within the lively continuum of its garden and kitchen “classrooms.”

From the beginning there was strong community support for this project, as students, parents, teachers, East Bay merchants, community leaders, local organic farmers, and gardeners, as well as a savory medley of chefs and food service folks gathered together to plan the Edible Schoolyard program. Soon thereafter a huge expanse of asphalt was jack-hammered open, and a mixed cover crop was planted on the sallow, ashen soil. Six months later eager kids dug this nutritious cover crop into the parched ground, and the hollow-cheeked land began to whistle with health and new life.

Now in its seventh season, the Edible Schoolyard is not a neat garden. Kid-designed, it growls with feral fertility. At harvest time you can barely see across the tangle of crops to the open door of the kitchen. Rainbow Inca corn grows in a thicket overrun with Mexican sunflowers, heritage tomatoes hang heavy on woven fences hemmed with broad bands of opal and sweet basil, while the infamous “heart-beet” bed pumps out wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of succulent Bull’s Blood beets.

The kitchen is the hearth of the Edible Schoolyard program, where raw food from the garden is transformed into Cinderella pumpkin fritattas or brown rice and green scallions wrapped up in rainbow chard leaves. During recess break, groups of middle school girls often congregate in the back of the kitchen to practice singing and dancing to boom-box tunes like “Foolish,” by Ashanti. But when it is time for Spanish class, garden, kitchen, and curriculum are braided together in one bright cord as kids prepare Venezuelan-style salsa from the first garden tomatoes and hot peppers, speaking Spanish as they work.

What I love about the Edible Schoolyard is that the whole project is grounded in working and learning in the real world. With kids this includes failure and boredom as well as the excitement of growing food from seed to seed and sitting down together to eat that food in the convivial atmosphere of the kitchen.

These days the Edible Schoolyard is part of a wider food security policy that was unanimously approved by the school board in 1999, ensuring that no student in Berkeley goes hungry and that a healthy and nutritious breakfast, lunch, and snack is available to every student at every school. While this policy was being set up last spring, a volunteer group of parents, teachers, friends, and Edible Schoolyard staff got together during National Achievement Test Week to prepare and serve hot breakfasts of spicy garden hash browns, vegetable fried rice, and oatmeal for hundreds of middle school students who showed up to eat.

Buddhist practice is rich in teachings that emphasize connectedness, from the twelve links of interdependent coarising to the stark truth of birth and death, intertwined. I appreciate keeping the links alive between farm, food, and community by working in the Edible Schoolyard garden with ten or twelve rambunctious students, harvesting beets, leeks, and knobby carrots for just enough Hot Root soup to feed all beings in the Ten Directions.

 

Every Tuesday afternoon after school lets out, a group of kids meet in the Edible Schoolyard kitchen with Lissa and Chelsea, who usually work in the garden and office, and together they improvise and prepare recipes of food mentioned in their favorite books. They call themselves the “literary chefs.” This popular recipe was created from the Redwall Series book Mossflower, by Brian Jacques. All the vegetables come directly out of the garden.

HOTROOT SOUP:

5 potatoes
2 garlic cloves
3 carrots
1 teaspoon chili flakes
2 beets, with greens
salt and pepper
3 leeks
2 cups milk
5 cups stock
2 tablespoons olive oil

Peel and chop carrots, potatoes, and beets, and chop beet greens. Sauté leeks in 2 tablespoons olive oil, add roots and stock. Simmer until tender. Mash garlic and chili flakes with mortar and pestle. Add spicy paste, milk, and salt and pepper to taste. ▼

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