FOODPATHS - October, 2013
Food as a Teaching Tool
Flowery School – Sonoma, CA

 Long before the explosion of “Edible Schoolyard” programs captured the nation’s imagination, Sonoma’s Flowery School, a bi-lingual, dual immersion K-5 Magnet School, adopted a formal garden education initiative. Now in its 18th year, the garden education program is integrated with the school’s academic curriculum, including science, math, health, and language studies.  Food has become a teaching tool.

“Kids have a different way of learning,” said Esmeralda Sanchez Moseley,  Flowery’s principal who emanates the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager. “We focus on inter-disciplinary studies, integrating our academic curriculum in such subjects as science, math, health and nutrition, and art, with hands-on learning in the garden.” A classroom teacher is part of the program, reinforcing what students are learning in the classroom with what they are learning in the garden.  (“Magnet” schools” have been around since the 1960’s, and are usually public schools with specialized courses or curricula, drawing students across normal boundaries as defined by school boards.)

“We are blessed with Sonoma having a year-round climate that allows us to grow different things from season to season,” continued Sanchez Moseley. “Our Garden Education program was conceived as an opportunity to bring together Latino and Anglo families, not around literacy or social issues, but as parents and community members, sharing different backgrounds to benefit the children.”

Every student has a garden class two hours a month, supported by their classroom teacher and parent volunteers. On the days we visited, an energetic third-grade class was ready to begin. After a preliminary safety review (always walk in the garden), a lesson on carrying and using tools (rake, shovels, shears), and the admonishment of “no riding the wheelbarrow” by full-time Garden Educator Chris Everidge, the class was divided into three groups to harvest cherry tomatoes and basil from the “pizza garden” and convert them into mid-morning snacks, collect tomatillos to be made into salsas for the annual Salsa Party the next evening, and collect waste for the compost pile. In addition to Katie Carlson, classroom teacher, Ethan Sides, a parent/gardener was on hand.

 “We all tend to learn better when we have something visual in front of us,” said Chris Everidge. “When you can see, touch and taste something, it’s alive and real. Every student learns the parts of a plant. As they see how a plant grows, carrying water and nutrition through its leaves and stems, students begin to make the connection to their own bodies. When we study earth science in the classrooms, we have a living laboratory to explore soil in the garden. It’s full circle learning, the classroom connection offering the academic, the garden, the hands-on experiential.”

“We’re picking basil today,” Everidge continued. “By combining a cherry tomato, a piece of Mozzarella cheese and a basil leaf, you can make a nutritious snack comprised of the same ingredients you would find in pizza. The students learn how to plant a seed, care for it, harvest it, and cook or prepare something with it. Hopefully they will carry the experience of making a simple snack as they evolve into adults, and face their own choices about health and nutrition. Our students get to know very early on where food comes from,” she added. “Food does not originate at the grocery store.”

 “We try and introduce students to foods with which they may not be familiar, or a combination of foods they may not have previously experienced,” Everidge explained. “Peer pressure is a valuable tool. A classmate will inhale something that we make and all of a sudden, those that are not familiar with the food will emulate their friends in a positive way. It’s a valuable life skill, and that type of learning is valued here.”

The program also emphasizes composting. Virtually every possible piece of waste goes to the compost pile, promulgating a profound respect for Mother Nature, and promoting an understanding of “pest v. pal.” Snails may be pests, for instance, but if you are a chicken, they are a delicacy. Flowery “relocates” intruders and often shares its bounty with foragers.

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How the school evolved can be traced to a combination of luck, talent, and a commitment to serving the community with an innovative educational mandate. Sonoma, an agricultural community known for its wines and artisan food, needed a school that met the needs of an underserved population. Many of the Spanish-speaking families in Flowery’s school district worked in the vineyards and wineries, and also carried a deeply sensory knowledge and awareness of the natural sciences.

The school garden history begins in 1995 when 5th grade teacher Bob Gossett and Kate Ortolano, author of the well-known educational book, “Positive Discipline,” had two children in the school, and spurred the teachers, parents and community to create a hands-on learning environment combining an academic program rooted in the life and natural sciences, and language arts. Ortolano signed on as Garden Educator. The program, explained Sanchez Moseley, was designed not for children to dabble with plants on the grounds of the school, but to create a sustainable garden education program, financially supported by the parents, the community, and with fund-raising initiatives outside of the school system. That model remains in place today.

Three years later, in 1998, Flowery became a Magnet School for dual immersion, under the jurisdiction of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, and comprised of 50% native English speakers and 50% native Spanish speakers, reflecting the two major communities that dominate the region.

Admission is based on a lottery system; the academic content is taught in both languages. Dual immersion does not mean studying a language all day. It means that as a student progresses through the grade school curriculum, her or she emerges as bi-lingual in BOTH Spanish and English, and bi-literate, schooled in their academic subjects in both languages.

Esmeralda Sanchez Moseley came to Flowery as principal in 2009 after several years serving as a vice principal in Pleasanton, CA. A graduate of Santa Clara University, Sanchez Moseley attended Sacramento State in its teacher training program for bi-lingual educators, and later earned her Master’s degree in Educational Administration with a focus on bilingual programs. Garden Educator Chris Everidge joined Flowery in 2010 after being personally recruited by Ortolano as her replacement.

By all accounts, the turning point for Flowery was the Saturday morning that Brian Shepard, co-owner and partner, Walsh Vineyards Management, Inc. (and husband of Kate Ortolano), showed up driving a tractor along with a crew to build 15 raised boxes for the garden. With parents and students in hand, the task was finished in one day. Seed money for the garden program was initially provided by Walsh. While the couple’s children are grown, the company continues to support the garden education program; the school’s Parent & Teacher’s Organization funds the salary of the garden educator.

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One of the highlights of the year is the annual Salsa Party. Held during the first weeks of each new school year, the party is built around the annual harvest, features the recipes of parents and community members, and welcomes new families to the Flowery community.

“Parents value our program,” said Sanchez Moseley. “The Salsa Party is a great kick-off to the school year and an opportunity to re-kindle parent and teacher relationships as well as celebrate our families, students and community.”

This year, the students gathered tomatillos from the garden for the salsas. A distant relative of the tomato with a lemon-like flavor, the small, green spheres are covered with a paper-like husk. Students familiar with tomatillos frequently show classmates how to remove the papery husks.

For the Salsa Party, teams of parents are deployed to prepare the salsas. This year featured three different varieties. As the teams work, they tend to share culinary tips and cultural flavors, building relationships that carry through the years. It’s a way of “breaking bread” together, although the bond is rooted in tomatoes and tomatillos.

As the salsa teams cut and chopped, fathers, sons, brothers and others manned the grilled corn station, smothering the sweet kernels with a layer of the traditional mayonnaise and chile topping. With the Salsa Disc Jockey running his turntable non-stop, the mood was one of joyous engagement.

Parental involvement is not a one-time thing. Each family also takes a turn managing the garden for a week during the summer, and parent volunteers work one-two hours a week in the garden. Parents want to be involved, and it is this level of commitment that makes “The Flowery Model” work.

Is it possible that an acre or so of produce can be responsible for this success?

 “The kids take ownership of their work,” Sanchez Moseley said. “The garden is not just a garden. It’s part of a process, a loop in the learning cycle. The parents are involved, and the community is involved, but ultimately it’s all about the kids.

“Food is a teaching tool,” she concluded. “ How the students learn, what they learn, and the self-esteem that comes from this type of learning environment force our children to take responsibility for their own success. They see it directly through the garden education process. If the plants are not watered, they die. Someone must be responsible. It is a lesson quickly learned.”


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