Food and where it comes from
By Dianne Reber Hart
Sonoma Valley chef John McReynolds is well accustomed to the discerning tastes of upscale diners, but usually his guests have passed adolescence. Not the case on a recent chilly November day as he cooked outdoors for a group of his suppliers – horticulture students at Altimira Middle School.
Seated at picnic tables adjacent to their nearly half-acre school garden, students watched attentively as McReynolds and his assistant, Eduardo Haro, carefully chopped kale leaves into thin slices for specialty soup and salad dishes.
“The fun part about this, we grew all this food that you see,” McReynolds told the gathering. “This kale was picked just moments ago.”
For Altimira horticulture teacher Dutch Van Herwynen, the occasion was nothing short of a long-anticipated restaurant grand opening.
The cooking demonstration marked a new phase in the three-year-old School Garden Project, one that now matches local chefs with each of the 11 school gardens in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.
“This was just a great thing for me personally, for the program and for all kinds of people who’ve put a lot of energy into this,” Van Herwynen said.
McReynolds, the culinary director at Stone Edge Farm vineyards and winery, is a champion of the School Garden Project. Stone Edge Farm shares the belief in sustainable agriculture and farm-to-table cooking and provided more than $100,000 in grant monies for the project.
McReynolds considers the program a “reintroduction” of simpler days when people sourced their own food, canning what they couldn’t immediately use and having a big part in their own healthy eating.
“I feel like this information is the future of eating,” McReynolds said. “A couple of generations have become disconnected with where their food comes from.”
Teachers, volunteers and paid garden coordinators throughout the school district are working with students from kindergarten through high school to change that.
Second-year horticulture student Max Psaledakis so enjoys working with the Altimira garden that he’s planning to study horticulture in college.
“I just love it, I really love it,” the 13-year-old said. “I like to garden and it’s really fun. And Mr. Van is just the best teacher ever.”
Van Herwynen – simply “Mr. Van” to his students – said the School Garden Project reaches far beyond his expectations. For students who struggle academically, the hands-on “learn-by-doing” horticulture class is a place to excel and gain confidence.
Van Herwynen also discovered that the garden, located in a back corner of the campus, is a sanctuary for students who just need a quiet place to get away from the stresses of middle school. And at a campus where nearly 70 percent of the students come from poor backgrounds, the garden serves as an open space for planting they often don’t have at home.
Van Herwynen and Altimira Principal Will Deeths are working to position Altimira as a magnet agriculture campus, with hopes of establishing a career pathway program for high school, college and beyond.
Altimira students take horticulture as their one elective class, opting to work in the garden rather than study drama, music, technology or any of the other electives offered. In just three years, the program has expanded from one horticulture class to three.
The curriculum blends practical applications of math, science, nutrition, business and environmental studies while teaching students everything from plant propagation, landscaping and pruning to soil chemistry, composting and carpentry.
Altimira’s garden features several dozen fruit and heritage olive trees, two large greenhouses and some 25 raised beds where students grow a wide assortment of organic produce and flowers.
To help support the program, students sell bags of fresh-picked produce and floral bouquets at school for a $5 donation. They’ve also sold their goods at a seasonal farmers’ market and each week sell four or five pounds of baby lettuce to the school cafeteria. In addition, they’ve donated their produce to local programs for the hungry.
Sonoma food, wine and travel writer Kathleen Thompson Hill is the founder and director of the School Garden Project. She has an impressive list of achievements to her credit but insists the project is her greatest accomplishment.
“This to me is the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “There’s just this renewed interest in food and how we grow it.”
Watching McReynolds interact with Altimira students – who deemed his cooking “delicious” – was the grand prize to all her early efforts getting the project up and running. “It’s the culmination of all our work,” Hill said.
She credits the project’s continued success to the school district, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation and a long list of businesses and service groups. The Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival and the Fairmont Hotel are the latest donors to support the project.
Louann Carlomagno, the school district superintendent, said the School Garden Project exemplifies the collaborative spirit of the community.
“It’s a great community passion,” she said. “The community has done the lion’s share of supporting the gardens.”
Principal Deeths can just look at his students and know the program is working. The real joy, he said, is watching students deliver their flowers and veggies to the school office for awaiting customers.
“They just have such pride on their faces. They have an actual, tangible thing in their hands that they’ve accomplished,” he said.
For more information about the School Garden Project, visit svgreatschools.com or kathleenthompsonhill.com.