Common Ground

Alice Waters and Carla Marshall Promote Vegucation

by Virginia B. Wood


Local elementary school teacher Carla Marshall and well-known California restaurateur Alice Waters are both women with a desire to reconnect Americans to the earth. And the best way to do this, they think, is through the education of our children. Over the past few years -- within their own respective spheres of influence -- each of these passionate, creative women has been quietly fomenting a revolution in this direction. Last year, when Waters' executive chef Catherine Brandel visited Austin as a celebrity chef at the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival and returned to California with photos and stories of Carla Marshall's garden classroom, Waters knew she had found a kindred spirit.

So, when Waters herself visited Austin in the late spring on a book tour (see sidebar), a meeting with Carla Marshall was an important item on her agenda. The soft-spoken radicals finally met last month at Austin's premiere urban organic farm, Boggy Creek Farm. It was fitting that these two visionaries should meet and discuss the common ground they share surrounded by fertile acreage that has sustained families for more than 150 years.

Carla Marshall created an organic gardening curriculum for young children and has been teaching it in the Green Classroom at South Austin's Becker Elementary for the past six years. With an eye on future expansion, AISD had purchased a small house across the street from the school in South Austin's Bouldin Creek neighborhood. Carla persuaded the school district and the Becker principal to make the empty house and fenced-in yard available for the Green Classroom. She scavenged for soil, gardening tools and materials, set out to rehabilitate the yard, and turned the house into a learning center. Most of the work (and her initial salary) was paid by small grants that she wrote herself.

Though the AISD curriculum office lists the Green Classroom as an Environmental Science project, Marshall's concept provides students with a totally integrated learning situation. The Green Classroom certainly teaches environmental science and health, but the program also bolsters learning in all disciplines and provides opportunities to develop communication skills and achieve self-esteem. The children reinforce their math skills in measuring raised beds, setting prices for their produce, and figuring crop yields. When they are studying American Indians in social studies, they use a digging stick to plant corn with a fish head, in the native tradition. Their language arts skills receive excellent practice through programs such as "Lettuce Be Different" where they tasted four types of lettuce and were required to use a variety of descriptive words and metaphors to describe the diverse flavors and textures. After years of watching students reap the benefits of working with Carla Marshall, even the most skeptical teachers are now enthusiastic supporters of the Green Classroom and the program was awarded an unprecedented second President's Environmental Youth Award by the Clinton administration in 1995.

This year, the very first group of pre-K students who began in the Green Classroom are proud fifth graders, seasoned veterans who enjoy sharing their gardening experience with younger children. Several times over the past two years, students have been invited to sell organic vegetables from their garden at a local Whole Foods Market. During the sales outings, Marshall observed dynamic changes in some of her students. "Some of them had trouble understanding decimal points in the abstract," she relates, "but the minute that money crossed their palm and they had to figure out where to put the decimal point to record a sale of $1.25, decimals made sense for the first time." Carla also noticed that shy children who rarely made eye contact with strange adults were more comfortable discussing their produce with potential customers.

This spring, Becker elementary students made a deal with students at Gilette elementary in North Austin where the children are raising some farm animals. The Green Classroom provided lettuce to feed the animals at Gilette in return for manure to add to the Becker compost pile. "The children themselves actually made the trade," Carla Marshall explains, adding that both teachers and students felt a real sense of community and realized the value of strengthening ties between the schools. The swap will probably become a regular part of both programs.

Another successful experiment that will definitely be repeated is inviting local chefs to present cooking demonstrations from time to time, regardless of the program's lack of a functional kitchen with sinks, stove, and refrigerator. "I had to rent a stove for a month the last time we had chefs here," recalls Marshall, "and the refrigerator leaks all over the floor." Luckily for Marshall, Zoot chef Stewart Scruggs is looking into the possibility of getting some commercial kitchen equipment donated to the program. The kitchen lessons give the students an idea of what can be done with their crops. However the kids are not always eager to try new foods, and changing their eating habits may be the biggest hurdle of all. According to Marshall, "once one kid says something is yucky, the peer pressure is hard to overcome."

It would be nice if the students could see the produce being prepared in their own school cafeteria, but bureaucracy prevents cafeteria food from coming from small growers, even it originates in the schools' own backyard. The food service program at AISD is what is called a "self-operated district" and its funding comes from federal lunch program payments and revenues generated by a-la-carte food sales in district cafeterias. Cafeteria meals are prepared according to federal nutritional guidelines with all the bulk purchasing done by a bid process. There is no system currently in place to allow vegetables grown by Carla Marshall's students to be purchased by the school district. But the dedicated educator may find things are changing, especially if her West Coast counterpart has anything to do with it.

Alice Waters was pleased to hear about the Austin Green Classroom's organic gardening curriculum because she is in the midst of creating a somewhat similar program at a Berkeley, California middle school near her landmark restaurant. The Chez Panisse revolution began 25 years ago when Waters and some friends decided to open a restaurant that served simply-prepared food made with the freshest seasonal ingredients they could purchase. Over the years, Waters cultivated a wealth of small growers and food producers to supply her operation. The resulting restaurant influenced an entire generation of chefs (Jeremiah Tower, Joyce Goldstein, Mark Miller, and Catherine Brandel are some alumni), and the purchasing philosophy had a watershed effect on small growers and food producers all over California. Chez Panisse and subsequent restaurants influenced by it, helped to establish and support a market for fresh, locally grown organic produce, stimulating a long threatened small farm economy. Through dedication to her idea, Waters became aware of the changes that one person and one business could make.

On her way to work every day, Alice passed the crumbling inner-city asphalt school yard at King Junior High. She began to imagine the site with a garden maintained by students, and envisioned landscaping the entire school ground with edible plants. The seeds of what has come to be called the Edible Schoolyard came from yet another garden. "A few years ago, a woman called to ask if Chez Panisse would purchase organic radishes grown in the horticultural program at the County Jail," recalls Waters. Alice learned about the positive transformation jail officials observed in inmates participating in the project, such as willingness to work together and lower incidents of violence. "They'd never been nurtured or nurtured anything themselves," Waters states," and the garden made such a difference in their lives." She began to think about incorporating an organic garden into a school curriculum and the idea for the Edible Schoolyard began to take shape.

Waters approached King principal Neil Smith with the Edible Schoolyard idea and together they've enlisted support for an organic garden that will be integrated into both the school's curriculum and food service program. Eventually, students will be responsible for planting, maintaining and harvesting the garden. Within the next five years, the program will expand to the point that students will also prepare and serve meals for their classmates with the harvested produce in a restored demonstration kitchen attached to the old school cafeteria.

Because Waters wants the Edible Schoolyard to be a successful pilot program that can be duplicated all over the country, she and the committee of parents and teachers have proceeded slowly. Along the way, they've enlisted the aid of the California superintendent of schools and sympathetic U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials who administer the national Team Nutrition program to improve school lunches. In support of her program, Waters has also corresponded with President Clinton and Vice President Gore, suggesting that organic gardens be planted on the grounds of the White House and Blair House, and encourages them to support the spread of farmers' markets around the country. She reminded the chief executives that "to do these things would be in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who believed that we had to be a nation of farmers in order to preserve our values of freedom and community."

As a mother concerned about her own and every child's nutrition, Waters is disheartened by how disconnected American children are from the sources and production of the food supply, a problem of which Austin's Marshall was very much aware when she began planning the Green Classroom. Both women share a concern that a culture dominated by television has lost the civilizing effect of gardening, preparing, and sharing meals together. "Television advertising teaches us to consume and that consumption will bring satisfaction," asserts Waters, "I want children to experience the pleasure that comes in actually doing the work." Both the Green Classroom and the Edible Schoolyard are programs where children will learn stewardship of the land where food is grown and achieve self-esteem from growing and sharing food with one another. Here in Austin, the overwhelming success of Carla Marshall's Green Classroom validates Alice Waters' hopes for the future of the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley.

Carla Marshall and Alice Waters sat on the breezy porch at Boggy Creek Farm in the waning daylight, discussing business details such as grant sources and potential allies within the USDA. More importantly, they shared their visions for the future. Marshall hopes that the national awards her program has garnered will generate interest in other school districts and she has some grant money for the coming year to train other teachers within AISD to use the curriculum she has developed for the Green Classroom. Waters freely admits that she has undertaken her first book promotion tour because it provides a platform for her to preach the "gospel according to Alice Waters" regarding organic produce, sustainable agriculture and "bringing the children of America back around the table." n

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