Everything is Bigger in Bakersfield

It has been an immense privilege to design and advise on the construction of the Buena Vista Edible Schoolyard (BVESY) in Bakersfield, CA.  Project founder and local philanthropist, Barbara Grimm, had the dream to build an edible garden, kitchen classroom, and accompanying food literacy curriculum to be modeled on the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA.  Over the last year and six months, the Grimm Family Education Foundation has brought this dream to life by building a state of the art teaching kitchen and two-acre edible garden. The nine hundred plus students at Buena Vista Elementary School (across the street) are served by this project.

This is a bold and cutting edge project in the land of Bakersfield’s mega-farms. It’s heartening to see an interest in this kind of education given the cultural context of the area, especially for those of us who believe that an “edible education” is not a political issue.  As Alice Waters says: “good food is a human right,” no matter who you are or where you come from. Educating communities around Bakersfield is especially important given the ubiquity of fast food restaurants and expansive monoculture in the San Joaquin Valley. So far, it’s clear from the community’s significant interest in the project that I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Since the garden team (garden manager Dean Powell, Grimm-Marshall’s husband, Darcy, and I)  first planted the garden last Spring (2011), we have harvested hundreds of pounds of produce.   The kitchen teachers use the produce in daily cooking classes in the adjacent kitchen classroom, serving grades K-5.

For a small town, small farm, coastal California guy like me, working in Bakersfield has been an eye-opener. Everything is bigger. Literally: the fields, the farms, even the crops themselves (see 5lb. cauliflower above)!

Buena Vista Edible Schoolyard

High productivity rates mean that organic fertilizer has to be applied much more regularly than I am accustomed to.  Whereas normally I would amend with compost or decomposed manure between crops, the gardeners at BVESY have to be very conscious of how rapidly nutrients are used up by Bakersfield plants and amend the soil when needed (which is sometimes multiple times per crop). Fortunately, we had the foresight to balance the minerals in the soil and plant a diverse winter cover crop from the start in order to build the organic matter and dynamism of the soil.

The sandy loam soil is a different beast from the clay hard-pan we toil with growing around the San Francisco Bay. It’s easy to till but water and nutrients run right through it (especially during the long hot days of Summer).

Again, I stick to my “organic matter mantra,” encouraging the Buena Vista Edible Schoolyard staff to mulch heavily with woodchips and straw. I also advocate regular cover-cropping in order to hold onto water, soil and nutrients.  All organic waste is composted on site.

The group working on this project constantly comes up with new, creative ideas. For instance, pictured in this photo is a group vegetable washing station for 10 or so students to use, all at  the same time. We developed the idea to accommodate potentially bigger classroom sizes of students working in the garden.

Can you imagine something more fun than taking gardening and cooking classes at the Buena Vista Edible Schoolyard? These are some fortunate kids.

Not every community will have the resources to begin in such an ambitious fashion. However, as the tide of public support continues to rise for edible and environmental education, programs like this may become less of an exception and more of a rule.  As it turns out, programs like these have proven to be more beneficial to students in their overall education than spending more time in the classroom studying for standardized tests. As a result, students are healthier (http://cwh.berkeley.edu/node/1103) and therefore able to do better in school.

I believe that the achievement gap is also a food and nutrition access gap.  If we truly care about the success of the children of this nation and future generations of Americans, teaching students about how to grow, cook and eat good food will become just as important as teaching them about math, English and science.

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