Eight years ago, Nancy Silverton walked onto the playground of the 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles and saw 7 acres of harsh, cracked asphalt, hard by Interstate 10. The schoolyard was due to be repaved, but a group of teachers, parents, and community members had a different idea. They invited Silverton to join their effort to build a garden that would be a centerpiece for the school and integrated into every aspect of its curriculum. She has been involved with the Garden School Foundation ever since.
"It was a pretty terrible sight watching the kids out there on the yard, next to the busy freeway, under the scorching hot sun," says Silverton, who chose the foundation as a beneficiary for the Robb Report Culinary Masters Competition. "Over the years, I've seen it grow into a flourishing garden and a flourishing organization."
The idea behind the nonprofit group, says its executive director, Julia Cotts, is to create a garden education program at 24th Street that can be used as a model for the Los Angeles Unified School District and beyond. "Everyone is so excited about school gardens, so a ton of them have been built," Cotts says. "But really, that's just the first step. Unless you have some good programming and support, it's hard to actually access their potential."
A master plan was created, and a test plot was built. Over the next few years, the asphalt schoolyard sprouted a three-quarter-acre kitchen garden, a quarter-acre native-plant garden, and an eighth-acre reading garden. Silverton has been its most prominent supporter, holding fund-raisers at Mozza and arranging a La Brea Bakery booth at the Santa Monica farmer's market that donated part of its profits. She has sent chefs to teach classes and has come to the school herself to demonstrate how wheat is made into flour and then bread.
This fall, eight years after the Garden School Foundation was established, it is not only fully functioning at 24th Street, it has also published its Seed to Table curriculum and will be making it available nationwide. The kindergarten-through-fifth-grade program includes 120 hour-long lessons in science, language, cooking, and nutrition. Four additional L.A.-area schools will implement it this fall, bringing garden education to 2,500 students. The foundation itself has also grown, with five full-time staff members, 12 office volunteers and interns, and more than 150 volunteers in the garden. Its annual budget nearly doubled this year, from $200,000 to almost $400,000.
"Nancy is very conscious of the power of food as an educational tool," Cotts says. "She has an encyclopedic knowledge of ingredients, and she brings such precision and care to everything she does. That ethos is integral to what we are. We have a whole program of garden education that comes from that sense of purpose, from Nancy." –Michalene Busico