Grant Union High School Grows Leadership and Good Food
This week, UC’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute has provided opportunities for a wide range of individuals working within the food system to connect with on-the-ground projects. I had the privilege of visiting Grant Union High School’s GEO Environmental and Design Academy, which includes a gardening and cooking program. (Students learn about environmental horticulture, design and science. The interdisciplinary program also provides literature experiences that focus on food systems issues. They also learn about healthy nutrition and cooking, which is linked to the state-mandated health curriculum). I’ve admired the work of Ann Marie Kennedy, who teaches in the program, for a long time, and I leapt at the opportunity to meet her and visit with students participating in the program.
Grant Union High School is an urban high school located in Sacramento. The school is in an economically challenged area, and approximately 50% of its students are English language learners. It is a diverse student population that reflects the diversity of California and the nation. It is known statewide for the success of its football program but it’s also known across the United States for its garden and Garden Café program.
Ann Marie said something interesting about the students enrolled in the program: “They are disconnected from agriculture, but they are not disconnected from food.”
My experience at Grant proved that thesis, and mirrored the students’ lesson for that day. First we discussed agreements (safety, respect, learning from others, participating). We were asked to identify vegetables, and then given the task of harvesting specific vegetables from the garden. The model for garden management has provided a good portion of the program’s sustainability in the last ten years. It is essentially a shared school and community garden, which I believe is one of the best models for school garden sustainability. Community gardeners have individual plots, but assist in the school garden areas. Some of the community gardeners have children or grandchildren enrolled at Grant, but others are connected to the school simply through their love of gardening and the opportunity to cultivate food.
After we harvested the vegetables, we came inside. We also received lessons taught by a student, Adrian, and a former student who now serves as a mentor, Ja Thor. Adrian taught us about knife and cutting safety (absolutely one of the best kitchen demonstrations I’ve ever seen). Ja explained how the color-coded cutting boards worked, exploring the concept of food cross-contamination with us.
The visitors worked alongside the students to wash and chop the vegetables and prepare lunch in the wonderful kitchen, which was funded by a grant from Kaiser. While some cooked, others set the communal table or washed dishes. When lunch was ready, we sat down and ate a healthy chicken and vegetable chow mien with a garden-fresh salad loaded with extras, like fruit. We were also given the opportunity to sample Grant’s salsa, which is sold commercially, and provides a real-life business incubator for seniors enrolled in the program.
The lunch was, simply, amazing. Not only the food, but the chance to speak with students and learn about how the program has influenced their lives. All of them expressed that they have appreciated the opportunities for leadership that the program provides. (And in fact, the onsite program manager, Fatima Malik, who works for the Health Education Council in partnership with Grant High School, is a graduate of the program. She went on to study nutrition at UC Davis, and is now working at Grant. The program is also “staffed” by student volunteers from UC Davis. Students enrolled in the program have opportunities to serve as leaders in various capacities. The entire program provided a superb example of nested leadership and mentoring opportunities for youth).
The students also noted that they are eating more fruits and vegetables. Some of them are primary shoppers and food preparers in their families, and the result is that their families are also consuming healthier foods. Nearly all of the students related taking what they had learned in the classroom home, and shared with pride anecdotes about cooking for family members, including parents and grandparents. They expressed that the program provides a new way for them to look at what they do at home. Each said that participation in the program has helped them build relationships, and that they find acceptance in the program.
After lunch, each visitor had an opportunity to sit with students and ponder several reflection questions. I asked students what they wanted people to know. One student said we need to consider the value of buying local. Another wanted to share the health benefits of fruits and vegetable consumption. Yet another student wanted people to know that fruits and vegetables “aren’t nasty if you make them right.” (This same student told me he likes fruits more than vegetables, but aspires “to travel the world to find a veggie to fall in love with.”)
You can learn more about the program by reading this newspaper article, which appears in the Davis Enterprise.
I left my visit with an enormous sense of gratitude for the work of staff at Grant Union High (particularly Ann Marie and Fatima). I also left with a profound sense of awe for the students whom I spent half a day with. I have a great deal of confidence and hope in a future that includes their leadership.
But I also left with the idea that this exceptional program ought not to be the exception, but rather, the norm. If we are truly committed to a healthy future and a healthy nation, we need upstream programs like this, that provide opportunities for youth engagement with soil, healthy food, and mentors who will encourage their leadersh