It wasn't the Mormon Tabernacle Choir framed in red poinsettias on a TV screen. It wasn't a Crystal Cathedral production with live camels in the aisles.
It was the Crenshaw High School Elite Choir belting out Handel's "Messiah" amid rows of broccoli and collard greens on the northeast corner of campus Wednesday afternoon. Even assembled reporters, who spent much of this year documenting burned-out hopes in South-Central Los Angeles, put down their note pads to listen.
But a cappella carols amid the cabbages were merely background music to the main event of Wednesday afternoon: the harvest of vegetables from a rejuvenated campus garden that is the centerpiece of a new program that students named "Food From the Hood."
Until May, the weed-choked patch that once served as the school's horticultural teaching lab had lain fallow for years, the victim of declining school funds.
"I had been trying to get grants for five or six years to reopen the garden," said Crenshaw science teacher Tammy Bird, who oversees the new program. "Then, after the riots, all these people just appeared and started networking."
Bringing skills were nonprofit groups such as Gardens for Kids and L.A. Works, businesses such as Burpee Seeds and San Joaquin Composting Co., civic groups such as the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, along with volunteers such as Rachel and Bill Mabie, and marketing consultants Craig Rexroad and Melinda McMullen.
Since then, about 30 students have worked with the volunteers--often on Saturdays--to weed out the brambles and create a large and lush garden that grows multipurpose vegetables.
On Tuesday, the vegetables served as fresh greens to be added to boxes of food given to 42 families served by a neighborhood program called Helpers for the Homeless and Hungry. In growing the produce, the students also learn about agriculture, science, marketing and business.
As they picked their harvest Wednesday, high school sophomores--some of whom had never seen collard greens grow or heard of Italian parsley--tossed lettuce into food boxes with the aim of a quarterback and a glee appropriate to the season.
Six months ago, however, some of these same students thought broccoli grew like little bumpy trees in the ground, and the only cabbage patches others had seen grew dolls.
At the beginning of the program, one volunteer noted wistfully, some students were afraid to invest much time in the project because they didn't think it could last. One student said she assumed that people would jump the schoolyard fence and take the vegetables.
Perhaps the most skeptical was Niombi Harris, 17.
"I thought it was stupid--you know, everybody digging in the dirt," the lanky senior said. "But my whole outlook changed. I found out it could last."
What made the difference?
"You spell it L-O-V-E," said Harris, a speech and debate star who has been designated student spokesman for the program. As he packed lettuce into boxes for homeless families, he waxed poetic about the virtues of the program.
"We feel we need to give back to the community, to prove to the people that our community is a beautiful place," he said. "Food From the Hood, I mean, it's cool, everybody likes it. Like I told Channel 4, if another school sees what we're doing, they can do the same, and grow food for another 42 families, and another school can grow it for another 42 families. . . . "
In fact, the Gardens for Kids organization is looking to expand the program to 30 other schools.
Few of the Crenshaw students plan agricultural careers. Harris, for example, expects to enter corporate law and communications. More helpful for most of the students' futures are business aspects of the program.
At the same time the students planted their first seeds, they chose the program's name, designed a logo and set goals that include donating half their earnings. The other half is invested in the building the enterprise.
There are some obstacles. Among them, distribution is limited by the fact that fresh Food From the Hood has to stay in the 'hood because the neighborhood is in a Medfly quarantine zone. The group has no lemons to make lemonade, but with fresh tomatoes, it is considering tomato sauce--and the more profitable salsa and sun-dried tomatoes.
Bird, a marine biologist by training who also runs a campus zoo and coaches volleyball, said she is learning about such things as marketing. For example, she said, when thinking of markets for their vegetables, students' first thoughts were to sell to the outlets they knew--local fast food places. But they are now seeking more profitable contracts with upscale restaurants.