EnrichLA's student-tended gardens feed communities and minds

Every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Jasmine Lim, the EnrichLA program coordinator, can be found in the sprawling farm-like garden at El Sereno Middle School. Three or four classes will come through the garden those days for hands-on lessons about soil, plants, how to compost, how to mulch, when to weed or when to harvest.

The garden at El Sereno, like those at the more than 70 other EnrichLA gardens in Los Angeles, is a hub of activity -- and not just for the insects it attracts. Even when EnrichLA "garden rangers" aren't teaching, special ed classes, math classes, literature classes may visit. And students are naturally drawn to see what's new.

The Garden Ranger program is not purely academic. "We are a group of engagers and leaders," Lim explained. "What we want to do is open the eyes of kids."

Frances Gipson the principal of El Sereno, faced issues with a plot of land on her campus. She knew she wanted a garden and she called the perfect person to help -- Tomas O'Grady, the founder of EnrichLA, a non-profit that builds edible gardens on Los Angeles school campuses.

He accepted the project, sight unseen -- and came out within 24 hours. Soon, 400 volunteers, including El Sereno parents, were creating terraces and moving dirt and mud in wheelbarrows.

"It has become the heart of the campus," Gipson said. Fruits and vegetables from the garden help feed students, staff, local families and even families on Skid Row. It's a place where some of the school's autistic students can find a moment of calm in the lavender, and where gifted and special-needs students work side by side. "I can't tell you how much the landscape has changed, inside our students as well as the physical space."

Nearby, in Boyle Heights, at Utah Street Elementary, the garden had more humble beginnings. Two years ago, students approached Principal Frank Serrato with $64 in bills and coins. They asked him, "Is this enough money for a garden?" "It's a start," he said. "Once they demonstrated to me that they were interested, there was no way I could say no."

With a $3,500 grant from Lowe's, donations from family and friends, student body funds and the help of EnrichLA, the kids, now sixth-graders, got what they wanted.

"When I say this was a student project, I mean it, from beginning to end," said Serrato. "It's about them, for them, and they're the ones taking care of it." They were also the ones who named the garden, the Zalin Smith Community Garden at Utah Street Elementary, honoring a fellow student who had drowned over the summer.

El Sereno and Utah Street are just two example of EnrichLA's mission to build edible gardens -- and promote community wellness -- in low-income and underserved neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Their projects range from small raised beds to robust one-acre farms, and include beautification projects like painting and renovations. "We're creating a more beautiful space whenever we have the opportunity," explained Lim.

About half of their projects include the Garden Ranger program. Lily Begler of Long Beach is a garden ranger at three schools -- Bryson Street Elementary in South Gate, Foster Elementary in Compton and Montemalaga Elementary in Palos Verdes. She works with kindergarteners through fifth-graders. Sometimes the best moments for her are the simplest, like "a kid realizing, oh, this lettuce doesn't come from a bag," she said, or trying kale for the first time -- and liking it. "It's nice to see those light bulbs go on."

Tomas O'Grady wants those light bulbs going on for students and parents alike. He stressed in a recent TedX talk that all should have access to healthy food and that much of what we feed children in this country is harmful to them.

Some may take this as a well-established fact, but the in many of the communities that EnrichLA serves, those ideas are new -- and powerful.

Up next for EnrichLA is capitalizing on the $100,000 LA2050 grant it won in 2014, which puts it on the path to double the number of its edible gardens in city schools. The goals are lofty: tackling childhood obesity, creating more green space, and fostering environmental stewardship. But the means are simple: turning soil, weeding and watching bees and butterflies discover another small oasis in the urban sprawl.

--Laura Lambert, Brand Publishing Writer

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