In a small corner lot of Los Arboles Middle School in Marina, dew drops covered towering wild grasses and the wood of planter boxes had matured, giving them a mossy gray patina. Rows where beans or peppers might have been melded back into a featureless mass of earth. For schools across Monterey County, this was a common scene until 2012.
In the same year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control concluded that almost 50 percent of the children in Monterey County were obese, ranking second worst in the state for childhood obesity. For the Junior League of Monterey County, a nonprofit that advocates the well-being and health of women and their young children, that statistic was unacceptable – especially in the middle of farmland.
Nicole Kaufman, then chair of the Junior League’s impact team and now the president, viewed it as an opportunity to build from the ground up – literally and figuratively. The solution was Growing Up Gardens, a program that partners with schools to either refurbish old gardens or construct new ones. At Los Arboles, the once-overgrown garden now has raised beds among oak trees, a greenhouse and wood chips to curb weed growth.
But the program is more than just a school construction project. Once the Junior League partners with a school, the volunteer work done by Growing Up Gardens is predicated on continuation by the school’s curriculum. That could range from eighth-grade science classes learning about basic plant anatomy to setting up a salad bar in the cafeteria.
After the program’s initial implementation, it became clear to Kaufman that the relationship between kids and their food was changing. “You’re giving [kids] an onion to grow, and now they’re excited about eating it,” she says. “I personally hated broccoli – and I kill plants, not grow them – but once I grew some broccoli, I was excited by it and now I cook it and eat it all the time.”
She also sees the improved vegetable-to-child relationship trickle up to families. She says some kids who get to take home vegetables give them to their parents to cook for dinner, allowing healthy eating habits to permeate the household.
It’s a work in progress, and though Growing Up Gardens has helped schools across the county from Spreckels and Greenfield to Marina and Seaside, the Junior League’s Big Idea in MCGives! is to have an edible garden installed in every school. “You have to start them young,” Kaufman says. “If you can make it a habit early, they’ll make better choices later.