The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley is a one-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom in Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. People sometimes think creating it was just about putting a garden in the school or installing a kitchen where kids learn how to cook—but it’s more than that. This is about an experiential education, where students are learning in a delicious way.
What makes The Edible Schoolyard different? It’s that the garden and kitchen are fully integrated into the school’s academic classes. Students might measure raspberry beds for a math class or learn about the Silk Road trading route while preparing an Indian vegetable curry.
Since the program started in 1996, the kids have prepared and eaten hundreds of different recipes, so we’ve had a lot of time to find out what they really like to grow and cook.
Here are three of our all-time favorites, dishes that nourish kids while engaging their senses and their imaginations:
This recipe couldn’t be simpler—whole-wheat toast, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil, with sautéed kale on top. It was one of the first dishes we made when the Edible Schoolyard started almost 20 years ago, and it taught us one of our most important lessons about the program.
When the very first spring term began, our kitchen director, Esther Cook, learned to her dismay that the only crop ready for harvest in the garden was kale—the last thing any middle-school child would want to eat (she assumed), and she loathed the thought of starting this journey with such a doomed food. But she did her best, showing the kids all the different ways to slice bread and how to sauté the kale in olive oil and garlic. Then the kids toasted the bread and began piling kale on top of their slices. They took a long time with this, making careful little patterns, and then placed them all on a platter and brought them to the table to share.
Esther was so nervous, watching the first student stare for a long time at the platter before finally making her selection. The next boy did the same thing, staring and staring before taking a piece of toast with greens. When the third kid also did the same, Esther realized what was happening: They wanted to eat the ones they had personally made! And once they found the toast they had put together with their own hands, the kale vanished in no time.
We realized just how surprising a child’s taste can be, and understood the essential truth that when you grow it and cook it yourself, you’re going to want to eat it.
Assembling your own sushi might seem like an advanced technique that only an adult would attempt (and an adventurous one, at that!), but it’s deceptively easy—and a tremendous amount of fun.
It’s also a beautiful illustration of how empowered the students feel when they’re making their own food. Practically any vegetable can go in—avocado, snap peas, carrots, radishes, sprouts—which means kids can harvest whatever is in season in the garden and enjoy experimenting with the many possible flavors, colors, and texture combinations.
The surprising thing we like to do is use a short-grain brown organic rice, and we try to serve it slightly warm—it’s nutty and delicious like that and gives the sushi another dimension.
Sometimes, the kids mix in a little cooked red quinoa for a wonderful color contrast. You can roll it up or leave it open-faced so you can appreciate all the components—I love how every student’s sushi can be completely his or her own creation.
If there is one dish that impresses visitors and teachers alike in terms of the sheer quantity of vegetables the students eat, it is Greens over Grains.
“We always get so excited to see just how many greens the kids have,” says Esther. “Each table of students goes through over five pounds of rainbow chard, bok choy, kale, collards—that’s a lot of greens!”
A garlic and olive oil mix is an important key to their loving it (it’s the same story with the kale bruschetta—it is hard to resist garlicky greens!). This recipe is part of a history lesson on our evolution from hunting and gathering to domesticating animals and crops, so the students get to learn about and experiment with ancient grains like millet, barley, and quinoa that they’ve grown in the garden.
It’s also an important lesson in basic knife skills and safety—for a lot of them, this is the first time they are chopping and working with knives, which is another empowering moment.
The array of greens can be particularly beautiful, especially when they have just been harvested from the garden. The children enjoy washing them, watching the way the water beads up on the dinosaur kale, for example, or appreciating the vibrant yellows and pinks and oranges of the rainbow chard stems. Then they dice and sauté the greens with a mixture of sesame and olive oil, soy, ginger, and garlic, and serve over the cooked grains.
This isn’t dumbed-down food for children, or traditional “kid” food like pizza or pasta—but the kids love it all the same. It’s simple, delicious, and satisfying—and all the better because they’ve watched it grow from seed and prepared it from scratch.
We are teaching kids to be good eaters, but it is bigger than that—they are learning how to appreciate beauty, learning to be stewards of the land, and learning how work with one another and come together at the table.
Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, California, has championed local, sustainable farms for more than four decades. She is also the founder of The Edible Schoolyard at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, a model public-education program that integrates edible education into the core curriculum, and brings children into a new relationship to food with hands-on planting, harvesting, and cooking. The mission of her nonprofit organization, The Edible Schoolyard Project, is to gather and share the lessons and best practices of school gardens, kitchens, and edible education programs worldwide. Waters is also the author of 10 books, including 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering, The Art of Simple Food: Notes and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution and The Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea.
Photo by Amanda Marsalis.