Erin Goodling, a close friend of mine who currently lives in San Francisco was awarded a grant to study FOOD AND FARMING in Italy this past summer. She very eloquently wrote about it in this essay and was kind enough to send along some of her beautiful photographs of the trip. I hope you enjoy these and are perhaps inspired to create your own study abroad experience!
Digging Potatoes: A Delicious, Dirty, and Perfect Way for Teachers and Students Alike to Learn
Project Summary: While my days during the school year are spent minding the educational well-being of homeless and runaway teenagers in San Francisco, the welfare of San Marzano tomatoes, fennel, corn, eggplants, onions, broad beans, potatoes, beets, and squash; greengage plums, figs, apples, elderberries, cherries; Sardinian sheep, chickens, roosters, barn cats, donkeys, and horses became my focus for several weeks last summer on a small homestead farm called Pratale Valdichiascio in Umbria, Italy. Pratale is an “open house” in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. The farm consists of fifty acres of woods and hilly pastures, where the family produces its own pecorino cheese, eggs, olive oil, ricotta, yogurt, jam, herbal teas, wine, fruit, and vegetables. “We do without some things–” explains Etain, the 60 year old owner of Pratale, “–car, phone, TV, freezer, washing-machine. It is more longwinded to walk, write, wash by hand, make our own entertainment, but it’s more satisfying, slower, easier on the earth, mind, and heart.”
My hope this summer was to delve into a place that would inspire even more cooking in my curriculum, inform the development of an urban garden, inspire a reverence for healthy individuals and communities, and set a tone for collaboration with colleagues and advocacy for our population in the larger community. In the classroom, my biggest challenge lies in establishing an environment and curriculum that is inviting, academically challenging, and relevant to students who have been divorced from the school system for months or years. Experiential learning, in particular the study and practice of culinary arts and sustainable agriculture, have proven to be powerful tools in engaging our population.
Personal and Professional Growth: Immersed in a culture that pays close attention to and depends upon the symbiotic relationships between plants, animals, and the landscape, I remembered to slow down and pay attention to the world around me, to value intergenerational learning, to learn from immersion rather than simply textbooks. Reading memoirs of homestead life written by Etain and Martin, Pratale’s owners, brought depth to daily chores of digging potatoes and plaiting onions, and reminded me of how important it is to read primary sources and to look for new information in unusual places. I renewed my commitment to eat fresh food and to support local farmers. I made a resolution to be more experimental with my vegetables, and to eat a wider variety of grains and legumes. Thus far, I’ve cooked with quinoa, faro, red lentils, and flageolet beans for the first time, and have brought my lunch to work with me every single day this school year. My colleagues marvel at the bright peppers and cilantro that dot my salads and sandwiches, and we’ve begun a “potluck” lunch several times a month. I take more time to sit and talk with students, to provide tea during reading time, and to go for walks during breaks.
Benefits to Students and School Community: At Larkin Street, we’ve embarked on a two-month long study of food and sustainable agriculture. So far, students have toured a co-op bakery (and we are in the process of setting up a bread-baking internship), visited the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden, and volunteered at a local community garden that donates produce to low-income families. We also shopped for onions, bell peppers, jalapenos, tomatoes, corn, cilantro, and more at our local farmer’s market, and cooked enough pinto beans, chicken fajitas, quinoa-black bean salad, pico de gallo, guacamole, and horchata to serve 100 homeless teenagers and young adults at our seasonal Open Mic celebration of homegrown poetry and music. Today we cooked a big pot of lentil soup for lunch, serving sixty homeless youth. Students learn knife and food preparation techniques, hygiene, budgeting, nutrition, measuring, project planning, group collaboration, and discussion skills in the kitchen.
In order to tap into the academic potential, community building opportunities, and life skills inherent in a food and agriculture-rich curriculum, we’ve also begun to gather salvaged materials to start a patio vegetable garden at one of our transitional housing sites. We are planning for year-round salad greens, a fifteen-foot long mural, benches, composting, and fruits and veges galore. It will be a welcome respite to talk, study, and relax in an urban oasis we create ourselves.
A forty-five by twelve foot concrete patio exists on the property of G-House, a facility that houses an emergency shelter for youth ages 13-18, as well as 20-bed cooperative housing site for young people ages 18-24, in the Richmond District. We intend to collect and recycle planter boxes, ceramic pots, buckets, wine barrels, drawers, crates, and other materials in which to plant primarily vegetables but also fruit and flowers with which to supplement the cooking projects in the Larkin Street classroom as well as the meals cooked by residents and staff at G-House.
Students will participate in the process from the ground up, planning and planting the garden, growing produce, harvesting, and ultimately preparing and consuming the fruits of our labor. Our kids grow up in a fast food, fast school, fast fix, and fast life environment. By creating a safe space that offers a chance to cultivate and create, they will have a refuge that encourages them to be positive, contributing, and healthy individuals. Everyone connected with our agency—youth and staff alike—will be able to consume the products of, and work, study, and relax in this urban oasis. Ultimately, cooking and sharing meals and collaborating on a community garden will yield holistic growth, provide a context for inclusion of the entire community, and facilitate cross-disciplinary connections within the agency.
Gardening sessions stimulate relevant conversation in an informal environment. In recent planning workshops, we have attempted to answer several questions: What kinds of agricultural job opportunities exist? What can we learn about our own and other cultures and communities through food and gardening? Where does our food come from? Why is sustainability an important concept? What is Slow Food? Does it really matter where and how the tomatoes grow? Interpersonal communication is a crucial educational component for a student population that often lacks positive adult role models, struggles with mental health and substance abuse issues, is disengaged from school, lacks stable housing, and/or is developmentally disabled. Working together on hands-on projects such as a garden provides a natural context in which to improve conversation skills and stimulate openness to learning and expression. With careful facilitation, conversation turns from conflict and gossip to substance, respectful debate, and reflection.
Given that socio-cultural circumstances and educational content shape one another through processes of mutual influence, hands-on learning is one of the most effective ways to engage and retain the interest of students who are divorced from the traditional education system. An onsite community garden will be a rich addition to our curriculum. Ultimately, collaborating on a community garden will yield holistic growth, provide a context for inclusion of the entire community, facilitate cross-disciplinary connections within the agency, and infuse a reverence for healthy individuals and communities.