National Launch of the First "Teaching Garden"

Five years ago, at age 11, my daughter blogged about the plight of "school lunches" at her elementary school. Then she blogged an update when she got to middle school. I remember a statistic at the time saying that obesity-related illnesses in the future would impact more children then drugs, alcohol, gun violence and tobacco combined. I tried diligently to rally forces to make changes in the cafeteria. One family involved actually offered to provide a cook and fresh food everyday for the whole school for the whole year... but of course was denied due to union rules and district policy.

Five years later we are looking at the same awful food in the lunch room, and the incidence of childhood obesity has tripled in teenagers and doubled in younger children in the last 20 years. We have passed a monumental health care bill that will continue to cover expenses for an unhealthy society. And, sadly, we witnessed political infighting of historic proportions over the passage of the bill -- when the real enemy is the state of our children's health. We are fighting over how to pay for a mop or a bucket, when we should be fighting about how to turn off the faucet! We wonder why the childhood obesity numbers have risen to include 1/3 of our children and cost us $150 billion a year. I can tell you one piece of that equation: high fat, high sugar and high sodium school lunches, and a reduction in funding for physical education classes. If instead we keep people healthy, we will reduce these costs.

Photos credit John Dubois.

Eventually I got tired of hearing myself rattle on about the issue, and so did my friends. So we all decided to take action, and the Teaching Garden began. Inspired by Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign and Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, we came together to create an initiative to bring real, live garden laboratories to schools across the country.

The Teaching Garden encompasses a core belief that when you educate a child about nutritional choices, that child will teach his or her family and ultimately pass that knowledge on to others. We set out a simple task: grow an organic garden, support it with a nutrition curriculum, enhance it with education about the importance of physical fitness, and challenge each student to make small changes to improve their health. Finally, each Teaching Garden school makes a commitment to pass on their knowledge and passion for a healthy lifestyle to the next Teaching Garden school. The entire time we must remember that human capital is our most valuable asset.

My invaluable partner, Principal Chi Kim, and our extraordinary ambassadors -- Michael O'Gorman of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, Peggy Curry of the Growing Great nutritional curriculum, Gabby Reece of Fitness Ambassador, Cat Cora of Iron Chef, Tobey Maguire and Derek Fisher -- along with our wonderful parents, teachers, and student volunteers, launched the Teaching Garden, a place where community partners come together to teach. A place where students, through the simple process of putting a seed into the earth, nurturing it and ultimately harvesting the food, will learn about efforts and results, delayed gratification, and cause and effect. The ultimate goal: hands-on exploration of the life sciences that lead to positive choices for health and fitness.

2010-04-05-ChiKim.jpgChi Kim - Principal of Point Dume Marine Science School (PDMSS)

When Kelly asked me what I thought it would take to get the Teaching Garden into 1,000 schools, two things came to mind. The first was we needed to focus on schools with great leadership and a high functioning infrastructure. The second was creating a program that would be easy to implement. There are many schools in vulnerable neighborhoods failing their youth, but there are also schools in these same areas that have made significant gains academically, but don't have the resources to make learning connected to real life. The goal of any educational system should be to make learning meaningful and relevant. What could be more meaningful than showing children how to grow fresh food, finding out how to make great meals, and making meaningful and healthy changes to their diets?

Our students and gardening parents had an amazing opportunity to pass on their knowledge at our kick off event at Kelso Elementary School. When they worked with over 700 students to plant their first edible garden, the sense of empowerment that our students gained by passing on their knowledge is what we on the Teaching Garden team wants every child to feel.

2010-04-05-GabrielleReece.jpgGabrielle Reece - a former Women's Beach Volleyball League star and one of the world's sexiest athletes. She is founder of the sites The Honeyline and Train 360, which offers women health and fitness information.

I think any time there is an opportunity where one can give in a way that is a natural extension of who they are, it's a no-brainer. When my dear friend Kelly Meyer asked me to be a part of the Teaching Garden from the fitness point of view I was thrilled. Don't get me wrong, I like to dig a hole in the dirt like the next person, but jumping around is definitely right up my alley. When I was sitting at the event in Inglewood, speaking with Peggy Curry, who started GrowingGreat, she said it perfectly: "its crunch time and we all have to pull together." I could ramble about all the negative impact cutting the music and physical education curriculum has had on our children, but I think that has been pretty much laid out.

The Teaching Garden works in such a beautiful way. You have one school supporting another, and launching them into developing their own garden. You get kids out connecting with where their food is coming from. The Teaching Garden introduces them to the idea of eating fruits and veggies, teaching them about growing and preparing their own food, and then passing on the gift of the garden to the next school. The sense of community from this project is as important as the healthy food itself. My part is easy, because kids intuitively want to move around -- they just need encouragement and opportunities to do so. From an adult trying to lose weight, to keeping our kids healthy, food is definitely the number one component to tackle. Exercise is the second part of the formula, and can be an easier issue for people to take on (especially kids). My goal is to get out there, with each new Garden that can be placed in our precious schools, and reinforce the message that we need to make better choices with what foods we eat, and to move around more. Fun has got to be king here. Kids don't need some heavy handed messaging about "exercise" -- they need to run, jump, and play.

It all starts with taking care of ourselves, our own families, helping our neighbor, and lending a hand to the community in which we live. The Teaching Garden is just one more chance to take the baby steps to change what we can't ignore any more. Our children need us to lead them towards the best information that will give them a healthy and happy future.

I can't think of anything more important, and I have to tell you there is nothing like seeing 700 kids take your "exercise" routine and turn it into a dancing and singing party. Brilliant.

Michael O'Gorman - Founder of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition in 2008 to help young men and women returning from war find work and places to heal on America's farms.

When Kelly Meyer asked the Farmer-Veteran Coalition to help with the first Teaching Garden I was thrilled. The only thing my family has a lot of, besides farmers, are school teachers. Besides our farmer/school gardener friends Ramsey Cronk and Alexis Schoppe, I invited Army veteran John McLaughlin, Marine veteran Jose Luis Soto and Coast Guard veteran Greg O'Gorman. John grew up on a 1200 acre family farm outside of Merced, California, went to Iraq, ran into an IED and came home with a Purple Heart. Jose, whose mother picked grapes when he was a child, went to Iraq at the age of 17 and lost a lot of close friends in battle; another took his own life recently. My son enlisted after 9/11 and came home from his last one year tour in Kuwait this past July. Besides preparing the beds the day before, and working with the kids during the planting, the three each donated a fruit tree to Kelso Elementary - a lemon, an apple and a mandarin - a tradition we want to continue with each of the Teaching Gardens around the country.

People always tell us how healing it must be for these men and women to be working with plants - and that is true. But what is most healing is channeling their need and desire to continue serving. I was moved by how much getting to help in this project meant to them and we are grateful to Kelly for including us in such a joyous event.

2010-04-05-CatCora.jpgCat Cora - The first female American Iron Chef, Authors of two cookbooks and Founder and president of Chefs for Humanity.

When Kelly Meyer invited me to be a part of the Teaching Garden at Kelso school, I immediately said yes for many reasons. I am first and foremost a parent who is concerned, like so many others, about her children's health and well-being. Even as a chef, I worry constantly that my four boys are eating enough and eating the good foods that will make them strong and healthy. But I also have learned from my parents the idea of giving back. My parents still reside in Jackson, Mississippi, the town I was born and raised. They are conscious of healthy eating, being active and living the best life they can. But that is not the case for all of Mississippi. Mississippi, along with West Virginia, has a 30% clinically obese rate, the highest in the country. Matter of fact, a few days before I went to the White House to cook, the First Lady, Michelle Obama, was en-route to Jackson, Mississippi to visit two elementary schools for her "Let's Move!" cause. I was so thankful that the First Lady spent time in my home state that I pledged myself to her movement along with the White House chefs, Sam Kass and Cristeta Comerford.

So, when I got a call from Kelly Meyer and all the other great people gathered to give this school a Teaching Garden, I knew I had to be part of it. Cooking is a life skill that will be with you forever. And the importance of having cooking as a life skill, whether you are an aspiring chef or a home chef, is that it improves your ability to make healthy choices that can change your life. When I taught my first demo to the class at Kelso, the kids were fascinated, connected and invested in the Teaching Garden. They wanted to learn where foods come from, what each ingredient was, and gave their opinions with gusto. What I saw that day was inner city kids feeling, maybe for the first time, their power and that they can live a lifetime on that energy. That is what will propel them to success, the feeling that they matter. It is as simple as planting a garden that can change a child's future. I plan to be involved as much as I can be with the Teaching Garden. This is one of the most crucial and important movements of our time.

2010-04-05-PeggyCurry.jpgPeggy Curry - Co-Founder, President, and Director of Development of GrowingGreat, a non-profit garden and nutrition education program.

If we don't have our health, what do we have? As a mother of four daughters who lost both parents to cancer, I learned early on that there is nothing more important than our health and the health of our family. Having spent years raising money for cancer, I realized that I no longer wanted to raise money for disease but focus on education for prevention and wellness. I wanted to do something that had an immediate impact on people's lives. That was 16 years ago.

After my first conversation with Kelly Meyer, I knew in my heart that I had found a person with the same passion and desire to affect real and lasting change, someone with a strong vision and power to make things happen. Kids today are in trouble. They need our help. Together GrowingGreat and the Teaching Garden are part of the solution getting kids excited about eating healthy foods!

As a co-founder of GrowingGreat, a nonprofit school garden and nutrition education organization, for 10 years we have been able to educate and inspire over 30,000 children and adults to adopt healthier eating habits. GrowingGreat partnered with Kelly and the Teaching Garden to provide comprehensive standard based garden and nutrition curriculum to fulfill her dream! By understanding where food comes from in the garden and realizing the benefits of choosing high quality foods from classroom nutrition lessons, kids are making the connection between food and their health. We trained enthusiastic Kelso Elementary teachers to implement a sustainable school garden and nutrition program. Students then become ambassadors and share their knowledge with their own families.

Together our programs empower children to make healthier food choices that will last a lifetime.