By Alia Wilson

When regularly offered state-issued steam-bag hot dogs and overcooked pizza slices for lunch, it was no wonder that the students at Renaissance High School in Watsonville sent out a dietary cry for help.

Two UC Santa Cruz students heard their plea. In response to the poor food quality and the issue of self-esteem for the students, the Renaissance High School Garden Project was born.

Gardening for Health

Ari Tenenbaum and Justin Wiley coordinated the Action Research Team for the Education for Sustainable Living Program (ESLP). They found UCSC students to volunteer, in a five-unit class for the quarter, working in the 12-acre garden located behind the school’s classrooms.

The Garden for Health Program that was in its beginning stages earlier this quarter is now blossoming because of the time and effort dedicated by UCSC and Renaissance students alike.

“Our goal was to get students out of Santa Cruz,” Tenenbaum said. “We provided the opportunity to get people down there and be an active part of [the Watsonville] community.”

The team effort was recognized last month for their work with the garden and was awarded a $10,000 Public Service Scholarship from the Donald A. Strauss foundation. According to Tenenbaum, the team has set up a budget to use the grant money for the garden projects to come.

Since April, the ESLP team and high school students have planted a variety of fruits and vegetables in the garden such as onions, lettuce, carrots, peppers, squash, watermelon, oranges, whole beans, and corn. Most of the seedlings and supplies have been donated by Cole Canyon Farm, and Lumbermens in San Lorenzo.

The 170 by 80-foot plot of land continues to be developed as the ESLP students continue to teach the ninth to twelth-grade students how to live in their own sustainable environment.

Among the county’s low-income children (defined as those in families at 200 percent of the poverty level or below), 23.2 percent of those aged five through 19 were found to be overweight. It was the state’s third-highest percentage of the regions tested, according to the Child Health and Disability Prevention Program.

UCSC second-year Amanda El-Khoury signed up for the ESLP course with hopes to emphasize alternatives that aren’t impossible and that students can make healthy decisions in their daily lives by using what they have at home.

“I personally think food is overlooked as such an important and foundational aspect of our lives,” El-Khoury wrote in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press. “What we eat really determines our energy, our output, our state of mind, how we are feeling, it goes on and on.”

Collaborating with students that are not that much younger than the ESLP team, El-Khoury explains, allows them to relate to each other easily and that manual labor acts as a catalyst for getting to know others.

Taking Health Education into Their Own Hands

After sending applications for grants, the students received $1600 that aptly secured the proposal for a Health Day in which case UCSC’s Education for Sustainable Living Program (ESLP) was there beside them every step of the way.

With two weeks to put the event together, organizers rapidly assembled 15 different workshops. The workshops consisted of four categories: exercise, nutrition and food, education, and free choice. Some of the winners that students submitted were sushi making, gardening, yoga, kickboxing, and hip-hop dance.

“We wanted to make people feel better about their self-image,” said Tony Cegura, the fourth year who wrote the grant proposal. “And that exercise can be healthy and fun at the same time just like dancing.”

Instead of having regular classes, teachers opted to dedicate all Wednesday to learning about health and nutrition. Spread over four periods, the students were assigned to different workshops.

Using the money from the grants provided by United Way and Strategic Health Communication, as well as several donations from Staff of Life, Santa Cruz Farmers Market, Mobo Sushi, and Costco, classrooms were transformed into sanctuaries for fresh foods.

“This is the most collaborative project I’ve worked on in a long time,” said Jenn Laskin, one of the main coordinators of the Health Day and a teacher at Renaissance High. “The ultimate goal is for students to take it home with them, to continue what we started here today and infuse those good foods into the kids’ diets.”

Laskin said that she hopes to have a Health Day, or a variation of it, once a month to build new habits and awareness in the students.

Based more on educating students about making health decisions, the peer-led Got Energy Workshop trained students to break their peers up into groups to play a game of Hollywood Health Squares.

Facts and trivia taught students foundational knowledge that they can use to make healthy choices. Whether they’re in a cafeteria or a fast food restaurant, they now know that they have healthy options.

The trivia leaders sporting gray shirts with ENERG on the front stressed the importance of teaching their fellow classmates basic nutritional facts.

“We want them to take this information wherever they go and to tell their family members,” said Ana Escalante, one of the group leaders.

“Spread the word!” chimed in Jay Pascua, another group leader.

Judy Schwarze, the school nurse, sat in the back of the room and watched with a smile as the workshop took off under the instruction of the students.

“They had great organization and presented themselves in a clear way,” Schwarze said. “Plus it’s hard to be in front of your peers!”

With the cafeteria closed for the day, students got to experience the many options they have on their own school grounds besides what is normally served. Laskin hopes that produce from the garden will be implemented into the cafeteria program.

Sue Brooks, Pajaro Valley Unified School District Director of Food Services, was open to Laskin’s idea.

“I think there’s a way, but we have to see what and how much is available in their garden,” Brooks said. “Produce doesn’t really come into harvesting until school is out or when the kids are not there, otherwise we have to supplement what is ready to harvest.”

Brooks said she needs to talk to the teachers and principals before anything can be decided. Not including the district’s food department in the Health Day may have made things more difficult for the students than necessary.

“I’ve worked with Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) to bring in food and I’m trying to work with Agriculture and Land-based Training Association (ALBA) now,” said Brooks. “If we can get on board with them they might be able to supplement out at Renaissance High. I would have actually liked to participate in the Health Day but there is a lot going on in a district this size. We just need to communicate more.”

Success of Health Day and Plans for the Future

The event, having gone without a hitch, inspired all of those involved and sparked hope for the students who hungered for something more than the mediocre.

Holly Stevenson, ESLP student, headed the sushi workshop and said that it was the complete cooperation from the school and its students that made the event go smoothly.

“The workshops have been a huge success,” Stevenson said. “[The students] wanted this; it wasn’t something that was shoved down their throats. I hope to leave a long lasting impression that leads them to sustainable action.”

The Health Day accomplished its original goal, which was to empower the youth who dreamt it up.

A growing independence from the state’s food system, and a generated self-reliance among the young adults, inspired more and more students to participate in the Garden for Health project.

“At first five to 10 students would come out,” said Justin Wiley, co-leader of the Garden for Health project. “Now there are 10 to 15 students teaching each other regularly.”

Wiley hopes to gain more participants during the Health Day’s gardening workshop, where students got the opportunity to plant corn and whole beans.

During the workshop, Wiley instructed the high school students on how to plant the seedlings with about an arm’s length of space between each one. He stressed the importance of loosening the soil surrounding the roots of the plant so that it has more room to spread out once planted.

After receiving her spade, Renaissance senior Kayla Brown began to dig her own mark in the garden along with her peers.

“I learned how to garden and what healthy things to grow,” Brown said. “I learned more about the earth and the ground and even met more people.”

Tenenbaum and Wiley hope to implement an ROP program for the students who want to work in the garden. It is currently run as an after-school program where students receive hours that apply to their community service requirement for graduation, or to make up for missed class time.

In the summer, some of the grant money will go toward paying $8 an hour to students who continue to maintain the garden and improve upon the already existing chicken coop and rabbit pen.

The more help there is to bring the garden completely to life, the sooner the school can become fully sustainable.

_To participate in the Garden for Health project, contact Justin Wiley at (831) 331-7420._