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Imagine a world where students could plant, harvest and cultivate the foods they eat in their school cafeterias.

By Michael Ableman Posted Jan 28, 2009

As Lunchtime at Goleta Valley Junior High starts at 12:07. Within 28 minutes, 700 students have to be “fed” before returning to classes. The scene is pandemonium. Students are either standing in lines, clustered in small bands, or racing around as if lost. The lunch tables are folded and stacked with their accompanying chairs; students eat outside while standing up (a food fight a couple years ago resulted in the administration’s removing any opportunity for students to sit down and eat together).

The cool stainless tubular slides that once carried plastic trays of hot food dished out by hair-netted women in starched white uniforms remain. But no milk machines squirt columns of regular or chocolate milk; no bottom-heated tables keep mashed potatoes or lasagna warm; no fishcakes wait in stacks; no coleslaw sits at the ready; no clam chowder simmers, ready to be ladled into waiting bowls.

The heating table’s large pans are now filled with prepackaged barbecued beef sandwiches and cheeseburgers prepared at anonymous kitchens, miles away, with ingredients from U.S. government commodities programs. On the wall a faded sign reads, “Fruits and vegetables are always in season. Whether they’re fresh, frozen, canned, or dried, they all count.” The cardboard “No pizza today” sign brings audible sighs of disappointment.

A salad bar graces one corner of the room, laden with shredded iceberg lettuce, grated cheese, pickles, peppers, yogurt, granola, peanuts, and apple and orange pieces. Another station is stacked with Italian subs, ham sandwiches, and celery pieces with containers of peanut butter. With a pair of plastic tongs, the lady in charge of the salad bar makes a futile attempt to conceal the brown lettuce leaves. She asks if I’m an inspector, then apologizes for the condition of the lettuce. She tells me that it’s the last day before the break and that they’re trying to “get rid of” the old product.

The longest lines of students lead to two wire mesh-covered windows outside the building, where attendants dispense nachos — orange gooey imitation cheese squirted from a machine onto chips. Every purchased item is placed in a thick cardboard tray. I watch as students pay for their food, then immediately toss the trays, foil wrappers, napkins, and cans into rapidly filling trash barrels.

Just a few blocks away, in the fertile fields of Fairview Gardens, a small community farm, long rows of asparagus poke their heads out of sandy soil, crimson strawberries dot a nearby field, and multicolored lettuces stand up straight and tall. Peach, plum, apricot, and nectarine trees have just shed their pink and white flower petals, revealing branches loaded with small fruit. In neighboring fields, the last of the mandarin oranges hang like orange beacons, and the first avocados cluster from huge grandfather trees in the “cathedral” orchard that dominates the land.

The farm is often referred to as “the little farm that could” for its unprecedented diversity of products and as a model of urban agriculture and public education. It has operated since 1895, holding out against the tide of development, withstanding a range of threats to its existence, and now permanently preserved under an agricultural conservation easement.

In the large field along Fairview Avenue, the main thoroughfare used by most students going to and from the school, carrots, beets, spinach, onions, broccoli, artichokes, and snap and English peas provide food for the burgeoning suburban population that now inhabits this once agricultural valley. In the surrounding neighborhood, fields containing some of the richest and deepest topsoil on the West Coast now yield housing developments, shopping centers, and clogged roadways.

It takes about 10 minutes to walk from Goleta Valley Junior High to Fairview Gardens farm, about four minutes by bicycle, and about one minute by car. This stunning twelve-and-a-half-acre outdoor classroom is open to the public. Thousands of people come each year to enjoy a different kind of educational experience, starting with soil and moving through a range of food crops and animals.

Hundreds of students from the school have toured the farm. The farm helped the school to start a garden and has done assembly presentations about food and farming. But while those experiences are well received, the ideas and inspiration they engender stop at the cafeteria door. As founder and executive director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, I’ve tried to interest the school in replacing some of the highly processed, distantly grown items that its cafeteria serves. I’ve offered the alternative of fresh, organic food grown by the school’s neighbor down the street, but have never been able to generate interest.

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