Food is a force for good. Which is why we work with amazing community partners to improve and empower healthy eating in our cities. One of those incredible partners: the Garden School Foundation.

Recently, we headed to the 24th Street Elementary School to see the garden and learn about its mission. We chatted with Cassie Martinez, the executive director for the Garden School Foundation, about where the organization’s going, and where it’s been:

How did the Foundation gets its beginnings? You just hit your ten-year anniversary?

About ten years ago, the district told 24th Street Elementary School that they had set aside about 2 million dollars to repave the asphalt on the site. Word spread, and neighbors, volunteers, and parents petitioned the district with a different plan.

So the district used the money to remove the asphalt — that asphalt was right where we’re sitting now. Instead, we put in a track and field route, trees to line the freeway and absorb some of the pollution, and a half-acre live-in garden, plus a reading garden.

The Garden School Foundation was officially established as a non-profit. An executive director came on board to help figure out a game plan. We had chefs come in and teach classes when they had time in their schedules. We had all sorts of different people.

By the time we were five years old, we had community members, teachers, and principals reaching out to us, asking,

“How do you do what you do? How do you work with administrators? How do you connect it to what the teachers are doing in the classroom? How do you bring out the students during the school day? How do you grow in inner city LA?”

We spent those next five years really codifying everything, developing our Seed to Table Program. We wrote our curriculum, and spent years testing and evaluating and building our business model. Now, we are reaching over 2,500 students, and we have the capacity to keep building on that.

Garden School Foundation 24th Street Elementary School

How does the Seed to Table Program work?

Our Seed to Table Program uses the garden to provide resources for the community through two direct channels. First, in our garden classes, where we bring our students out during the school day to use the garden to learn science, language arts, and math. The curriculum connects directly to common core standards, so there is an easily drawn link between the garden and the classroom.

During that time, we also teach the students how to grow food, how to grow fruits and vegetables, how to plant seeds, how to tend crops, how to look for beneficial insects in the garden, what are pests in the garden, how to recycle.

There are really endless possibilities in what we are able to teach in these garden classes.

The other half of that program is our cooking program, where the students come out once a month to harvest the food they’ve grown in our garden classes and create a healthy meal together. They learn about the nutritional impact on their bodies and how to make healthy choices, so that they can take the recipes, ideas, and concepts home.

We like to teach the kids how to turn a regular ingredient into a superfood. So let’s consider a quesadilla. It’s delicious, but how could it be better? We sauté some chard we grew in the garden, add it in there, and all of a sudden we have a super quesadilla. That’s a really easy concept for kids to wrap their minds around.

Garden School Foundation 24th Street Elementary School

What else does the organization work on in the day-to-day?

We have our community workdays, where we bring our families and other partners out to the garden to help us build out our spaces. We usually have a cooking demo or a garden workshop during those days. It’s a nice time to work together on a common goal and bring people from different communities into our world.

Another thing that we do is provide after-school programming at our sites. We have a lot of talented volunteers that seek us out and we want to use their skill-sets and assets to enrich our communities.

We may have someone come in and teach yoga, art, puppetry, or reading.

The after-school program is a really wonderful time to work with a smaller group and really dig a bit deeper with our community.

Garden School Foundation 24th Street Elementary School

How do you approach kids who might shy away from unknown veggies or who don’t want to get their hands dirty? 

A lot of kids are really happy to get their hands dirty. They are very excited to engage, so we don’t get a lot of pushback on that.

Now, you do have some students who are afraid to try new foods. It can be a little intimidating and it’s usually kids who are new to school, or the little guys that haven’t been pushed to try new foods before. We encourage everyone to try anything once.

We find that by 2nd grade, 99% of our students love everything that we do. For example, we work with first-graders who make a rubbed kale salad and they learn about all the different types of kale. They harvest that kale and use lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and cook it a little bit. These are first-graders and they absolutely love that salad!

To me, that is a testament that when you’re part of growing an ingredient and when it’s a part of your school culture — when you’re exposed to it in a healthy, positive environment, you’re going to be okay with it and you’ll eat it.

Garden School Foundation 24th Street Elementary School

What’s next?

We don’t typically build gardens; we usually move into schools that already have a garden. There are almost 700 school gardens in LA County. There are very few garden programs. We don’t want people to stop building these gardens — we want them to keep up the good work. But we also need to come behind them then and provide programs and resources for the communities.

We have a lot of schools on our waiting list currently. Our goal is to implement our program at new sites, and then also, at the same time, to continue providing our curriculum for our communities. We want to offer resources, trainings, and different customized packages for a given community based on their needs and their capability in running their program on their own without us.

Every student in LA should have a school garden and access to fresh healthy food on their campus.

In the future, we would like to develop a program for junior high and for high school. Empowering students to solve the problems in their own cafeterias is a huge opportunity.

Garden School Foundation 24th Street Elementary School

How can the Cava community get involved?

The biggest thing for us right now is building awareness of our work. We are always bringing in volunteers. We have large groups coming into different schools all over the city that want the hands-on experience. I think the need for school gardens is something a lot of people understand — but it’s still a new concept to a lot of people.

What you can do in a nurturing space like a school garden is incredibly profound — it can teach anything.

We have a lot of people come just one time if they are in town. We have people that start as volunteers and think they are just going come in once and end up coming back again and again. We are open to all of it and any of it.

Garden School Foundation 24th Street Elementary School

How does the intern program work?

We have had interns who are retired nurses who are 60 years old. We have had interns who are still in high school or at college.

If you have a passion about this work and have something to offer, we encourage you to join our intern pool.

We have about ten interns per semester. We have program interns, garden interns, greenhouse interns. It’s just a great way to get people learning about the work in a structured way where they feel like they can make an impact and really take something away as well. Two-thirds of our employees were all past interns. It is great to have that support. We are lucky.

Garden School Foundation 24th Street Elementary School

Can you describe any specific moments when you really felt like the Garden School’s work is truly making a difference?

It’s every day in subtle ways. We are in downtown LA, so it’s no secret that there are a lot of institutional problems going on in LA that could use some problem solving. Many of our students are living in poverty. We see a child that must have experienced something pretty profound and they come to the garden to seek the safety and nurturing environment.

Once, we were building scarecrows in the garden, and we had a mom scarecrow and a dad scarecrow and a baby scarecrow. One of the students who was working with us, maybe a first- or second-grader, said, “Where’s the cop scarecrow; where’s the criminal scarecrow?”

So one of our employee explored the idea that we maybe don’t need a cop scarecrow in the garden, and we don’t need a criminal scarecrow in the garden. What if this is a nurturing place where we take care of one another and look after one another?

A light really clicked in his head, and he just lit up in this really magical way. He was just so excited and very invested in building these scarecrows. That was a huge moment.

Garden School Foundation 24th Street Elementary School

What is the number one thing you have learned from the kids?

Just how much there is to really learn in the garden. They spark creativity in us a lot. They say things and do things that make us think, “Why don’t we do this?” We are constantly learning from them.

Kids are creative and they don’t have boundaries like we do. They don’t put things in boxes.

They teach us to continue to learn and continue to explore and to continue to have open, creative, adaptable eyes. The curiosity reminds us that we are being too rigid and putting too many limitations on ourselves. They’re just hard workers. Kids will just get in there and work hard. Kids are just making it happen with a big smile on their face.