Photo by Derek Wilson
Sanzuma founder Lori Davis walks through the farm at San Pedro Elementary School.
By Derek Wilson
With the playground quiet and no students at their desks for lessons, there was still some work going almost unobserved at Mill Valley’s Edna Maguire Elementary School.
In a corner of the campus near the playground and the ballfield there is a unique classroom set aside for the opportunity for outdoor learning. The teachers there are very special and include two volunteers, a group of parents, and nine chickens.
“Learning is organic,” said Reesha Ketcher, a garden education manager and one of the volunteers who keeps the Garden Classroom going.
The garden has grown immensely in the past few years since Edna Maguire School’s campus underwent a major renovation. Walking between the raised beds is better than browsing the produce aisle at the grocery store. The extensive garden is almost a miniature farm, with beets, carrots, lettuces, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and other vegetables growing in 17 raised beds, as well as sunflowers, edible flowers and more. The garden produces nearly 70 pounds of fruit and vegetables a week.
The food doesn’t go directly to Edna Maguire students and families, however, as there is no on-campus kitchen. The garden and its nonprofit arm the Friends of the Mill Valley Children’s Garden are part of a network of contributors to the Community Action Marin, which donates food to students and families in need.
“I think it really highlights the kind of energy and intention that we want our community to be nourished by,” Ketcher said. “Things are so alive right now. We’re so invested in different ways and we’re hoping to keep that investment nourished.”
Mill Valley, Novato and San Rafael elementary, middle and high school teachers and student growers, volunteers and paid growers are planting fresh, organic fruits and vegetables to provide to local food pantries to feed students and families experiencing food insecurity. Produce includes lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, sweet potatoes, cauliflowers, pumpkins, zucchinis, squash, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, sweet peppers and hot peppers. Food Connect’s “Last Mile” program delivers produce to families without transportation access.
The program operates in conjunction with The Captain Planet Foundation’s Project Giving Gardens program, which was launched in 2020 in the face of COVID school closures to help address food scarcity across metro Atlanta. The program has now expanded to the Bay Area and includes more than 70 school and community gardens in Marin County.
Sanzuma, founded by Lori Davis in Marin County in 2012, helps schools turn gardens into farms and learning experiences that grow more than enough food for the school. The farm at San Pedro Elementary School sells produce to the San Rafael City Schools District to help create nutritious school lunches. The farm also sells produce to local restaurants and works with nonprofits to feed families in need.
When our worlds shut down early in the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increased need for nutritious food. That’s when Sanzuma and other school gardens stepped up to help fill a void by ramping up production.
Due to COVID and kids being out of school, these gardens had not been active during a time that would normally be their most productive season, and the Captain Planet Foundation knew it could put urban farmers and those gardens to work for the communities they serve to address growing food insecurity issues, provide jobs and ensure students have productive gardens in place when they return to school.
Sanzuma and the Project Giving Gardens Program are spinning a web with existing school gardens to increase their yield and share knowledge and seeds. Working with other programs has helped make the garden at Edna Maguire one of the most successful campus growers in Marin County.
Anita Sparks, parent volunteer at Edna Maguire Elementary, said, “One in four people in Marin suffer from food insecurity. We knew that need was there, but it was important to have accessible labor we could rely on, and Project Giving Gardens made that possible. We produced 1,200 pounds of food last year. With Project Giving’s help, we want to see that increase by 300 more pounds this year.”
The Garden Classroom still donates its produce to nonprofits, but Sparks and Ketcher hope to restart a community farmers market where people pay what they can.
With the garden growing, Sparks and Ketcher are putting out the call to volunteers, students and parents for help. While they definitely have green thumbs, the duo are looking for a professional, trained and educated in agriculture, to act as a full-time garden manager and help the garden through the coming seasons.
Chickens, including Star a one-winged hen, roam through an orchard of fruit trees, pecking at fallen apples and rooting for insects and bugs. Sparks collects enough eggs from the henhouse for a nice breakfast. A basket full of heirloom tomatoes, some herbs and vegetables could make a salsa to go with an omelet.
The garden is about far more than growing food. It’s a place to grow minds. Students sometimes sit among the trees and read to the chickens.
“I think for the students the huge benefit to being here in person is the social and emotional learning component,” Ketcher said. “These students have been deprived of a year and a half of social development, and interaction with these animals is a huge advantage to being on campus; to get a chance to process what it’s like to connect emotionally.”