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El Monte School Garden Grows Fresh Produce and Healthy Kids

AHS students and USGBC-LA volunteers building a mason meadow | Marianne Zaugg
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“Tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, beans, strawberries, eggplant, sugarcane, guava, corn…”

Liz Christy and Marianne Zaugg list the bounty of spring produce that’s being planted at the Arroyo High School community garden before excitedly listing plans they have for improving the space. Christy and Zaugg are from ECo Urban Gardens, a small-scale agricultural nonprofit that partnered with the high school in 2016. The goal was to transform a barren piece of land into a lush teaching garden. Over the last few years, the community has watched the space go from a few neglected beds to an expansive working garden producing fresh produce.

The school garden began as a student project in 2015, spurred on by KCETLink’s Youth Voices program. “Our goal was to create a project that could help the students at Arroyo High School learn about our current environment, local food systems, and urban agriculture, but most importantly redefine the negative way others see our city,” wrote the pilot class of Arroyo High School students working at the garden.

Upon seeing the garden’s positive effect in the community (where nearly half of which lies in a food desert), the school partnered with ECo Urban Gardens to keep the project going. “We weren’t really gardeners, so we needed someone who knew what they were doing,” explained principal Angelita Gonzales-Hernandez. Soon after, the garden started to receive funding, with a Healthy Living grant kicking things into high gear. City of Hope, who supplied the grant, is a comprehensive cancer treatment center headquartered just a few miles from the high school. “We felt this was a really great way to create a sustainable healthy food movement in the school district,” explains City of Hope’s Nancy Clifton-Hawkins. “Now we’ve been able to really expand the vision of how this program can truly impact the health and the lifestyle of people living around the campus as well.”

Brianna and fellow students till the soil and de-weed
KCET Youth Voices members till the soil and de-weed in 2015.

Since then, the space has gone through a couple of phases, first expanding and improving the garden beds and shed, all the while becoming a bigger part of the school itself. More students have joined the garden club over the years, and culinary arts students make dishes using fresh-picked veggies. Zaugg estimates that through various clubs and classes, over 500 students have spent time working in the garden in the past year. The school district is currently in the process of approving a horticulture CTE (career technical education) pathway, similar to the culinary arts pathway but centered around agriculture and gardening. Principal Gonzales-Hernandez explains that “kids could be turned on to growing and become farmers or studying insects, biology. It just exposes them to another area, another avenue, another career.”

Funding from the U.S. Green Building Council of Los Angeles kickstarted a second phase focused on eco-friendly principles. The goal is to transform it into a regenerative learning garden with good environmental practices like capturing water and attracting good insects. They’ll also be adding a farm stand to serve the community. One of the garden’s essential goals from the very beginning was to reach out to the community with an urban green space that’s open to everyone. “A lot of times our community doesn't know what is happening with the school if they don't have a student here. It's another avenue for us to reach out,” explained Gonzales-Hernandez. “This is the community's culinary oasis,” added Zaugg.

The planned farm stand will allow students to learn sales skills and entrepreneurship while letting them connect with El Monte’s other residents. When asked about her favorite garden activities, former garden club president (class of 2017) Natalie Diaz mentioned the bi-monthly volunteer days, “because it allowed us the opportunity to engage with individuals from around the neighborhood.” Anyone can lend a hand at the garden every other Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. The now-graduated Arroyo High School student decided to spend her free time tending the garden because she “liked the idea of growing something from the seed up until it was ready to eat. I found it extremely calming and therapeutic.”

AHS student Oscar with USGBC-LA project lead Maya Henderson and volunteers | Marianne Zaugg
AHS student Oscar with USGBC-LA project lead Maya Henderson and volunteers | Marianne Zaugg
Beets harvested at the AHS garden earlier this year | Marianne Zaugg
Beets harvested at the AHS garden earlier this year | Marianne Zaugg
ECoUrban Gardens teacher Alessandro Bersanetti building swale with AHS students | Marianne Zaugg
ECoUrban Gardens teacher Alessandro Bersanetti building swale with AHS students | Marianne Zaugg
Decorations on the edge of Arroyo High School's community garden | Marianne Zaugg
Decorations on the edge of Arroyo High School's community garden | Marianne Zaugg

The garden’s not just changing how students think about agriculture — it’s changing how they think about food as a whole. “We didn't want to just grow the garden and vegetables, we wanted to change the food culture,” explained Zaugg. Principal Gonzales-Hernandez says many of the garden-loving students she talks to are starting to eat healthier. “How many kids think about going out and eating kale? But now they're adding it to their diet and bringing it into their homes.” With support from City of Hope and Kaiser Permanente, a long-term goal is to change the way the students and their families think about food, gradually improving the overall health of the neighborhood.

And the big ideas don’t stop there. Phase three of the garden includes plans for an aquaponic greenhouse and an adjoining outdoor classroom. Aquaponic gardening is a practice that combines aquaculture, or the raising of fish in tanks, with hydroponics. The waste from the fish is broken down by bacteria and used to feed the plants, which in turn cleans the water. It’s next-level horticulture that will expose students to a wider range of farming practices and could produce tens of thousands of pounds of produce per year. The structure will involve lots of planning to make it sustainable, climate-controlled, and long-lasting. It will also take more funding. “We need a lot of help,” said Zaugg.

While not all schools can house a big greenhouse and twenty-five garden beds, ECo Urban Gardens aims to add a community garden to more schools in the San Gabriel Valley every year. The organization currently works with four schools and adjusts the model to fit the space. Jennifer Swanson, a teacher advisor for the garden club, sees the value in adding a garden to school property. “I think it's very beneficial. It's a totally different way of learning, totally hands-on. And they can take what they've learned and take it home and start their own gardens and encourage their families to eat better.”

When Swanson looks back on the garden and how far it’s come over the past few years, she’s struck by its growth. “It is far beyond what I imagined it to be,” she added.

Top Image: AHS students and USGBC-LA volunteers building a mason meadow | Marianne Zaugg 

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