By Matthew Sommer

UC Santa Cruz students will be building a garden at Watsonville’s Renaissance Continuation High School this quarter and teaching the students about sustainable farming techniques.

The goal of the project is to bring gardens to the backyards of local schools and teach students about permaculture, a method of creating sustainable human habitats by dublicating patterns found in nature.

“We want to teach [Renaissance students] to look critically at the current food system with a hands-on approach, using the garden as an educational facility,” said Justin Wiley, an environmental studies major at UCSC and an intern with the Community Allianace of Family Farmers (CAFF).

The project has also found a place at UC Santa Cruz, where the Garden Health Project is now being offered as a 5-credit class through the College Eight Education for Sustainable Living Program (ESLP).

Renaissance Continuation High School is the only continuation school in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Watsonville. The students at Renaissance have had trouble finishing high school for a number of reasons.

The 2005-2006 Renaissance fact sheet shows low proficiency for Math, Science, History, and English based on California standardized test scores. Forty-four percent of the students are English learners and most of them speak primarily Spanish at home.

The Garden Health Project started as a compilation of several Brown Beret–a local Chicano Activist group–members, and student activists, who were dissatisfied with the food at Renaissance.

“I would compare it to prison food,” said Jay Palmer, a member of the Garden Health Project, of the current quality of food served at Renaissance.

“We brought to attention the injustice that the school is manufacturing this food,” said Palmer, referring to steam bag hot dogs and old pizza.

The Garden Health Project was created with the support of the United Way, CAFF, and Second Harvest Food Bank.

The CAFF Farm-to-School program promotes fresh, locally grown, and unprocessed fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias, which is also the goal of the Garden Health Project.

The garden may be starting up at Renaissance as soon as mid-April. The group is applying for grants and has already received several donations. The land in the back of the school, about 12 acres including an already accessible greenhouse, is available for development.

The project has also gained the support of Renaissance Principal Tom Tatum, who sees the project working into the school’s planned accreditation process.

“We have a goal to improve students’ social and physical health,” said Tatum.

The Garden Health Project works in accordance with the school’s plan of “offering meaningful opportunities,” according to Tatum.

According to Palmer, the UCSC students will be conducting a study to determine if the project actually provides a meaningful and empowering opportunity for the youth.

Though the garden will not immediately impact cafeteria food, Wiley said, “The short-term goal is to create community between Santa Cruz and Watsonville, while educating each other, in order to work towards sustainability in our community.”

He continued, “The long-term goal is to become independent from the current state food program.”