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Hearts of the City

Garden of Learning

A nonprofit group combats hunger and teaches children the joys of growing their own food.

May 22, 1996|PAUL H. JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

Crouched over a small dusty garden beside Elysian Heights Elementary School, two young children bring Chris Braswell a small discovery.

"This right here is a caterpillar," Braswell explains to them.

"They eat all the leaves," he proclaims, noting that the little bug can wreak havoc on plants. The girls remain fixated on the insect, found crawling in the dirt, and pull and tug on the future butterfly. One girl declares that the bug smells.

Like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, Braswell, associate director of the nonprofit Interfaith Hunger Coalition, works to get young people excited about gardening.

He sees vegetables as a weapon in the battle against childhood hunger, which afflicts 698,000 California children under the age of 12, according to the Community Childhood Hunger Identification Project.

As head of the coalition's community gardening effort, Braswell travels across Los Angeles County tending the gardens of 12 elementary schools, showing youths that a tomato comes from a plant, not a can, and a potato comes from the ground and not a deep fryer.

Research has shown that planting a garden reaps many benefits for urban areas, beautifying a neighborhood while providing a boost to a family's food budget.

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A 1993 UCLA study found that a 64-square-foot plot can save a family $650 a year in food purchases. Other studies have shown that a community will see a drop in crime through gardening, as residents befriend one another and form civic ties.

The tilling of a garden can also serve as job training and helps clean a city's grimy air, researchers have discovered.

It isn't even necessary to have a free patch of land to grow a garden, Braswell said. Plants can be grown in rooftop gardens or on a patio, in containers ranging from a bucket to a plastic Dixie cup.

Braswell works with volunteers from the Americorps program, who visit each school at least once a week to help the children grow vegetables that the youngsters take home or eat in class.

The students also learn about the life cycles of plants, how to compost and grow food organically, and discover the impact of weather on gardens.

During the school year, the students keep a journal of their experiences in the garden and are encouraged to keep a growth record andwrite vegetable-inspired stories and poetry.

A former landscape engineer from Houston, Braswell got involved in gardening through his desire to meld his interests in community activism, nature and nutrition.

He started a gardening project in Houston and was hired by the Interfaith Hunger Coalition last winter to start a similar initiative here.

Braswell is working to expand the garden project to libraries and community centers around Los Angeles County.

The program is funded through grants from food companies and the state and federal departments of Agriculture.

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At Elysian Heights Elementary, where more than 90% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch from the state, students grow lettuce, endive, spinach and radishes, as well as flowers, which repel harmful insects and attract beneficial ones.

The plot is littered with mulberries, which fall from a native tree that shades parts of the garden. Students tug at weeds and nurture seedlings that will blossom in the summer, bringing a near-dead patch of soil back to life.

Elysian Heights Principal Judy Moe said the free program has expanded the school's curriculum without breaking its budget, giving children the opportunity to learn hands-on how to eat and grow a healthful meal.

"These are the kinds of programs we need," said Susan Lustke, a counselor at the school who works with at-risk youth.

Providing young people with lessons that don't come from books increases the chance that students will find a subject that interests them and stay in school, she said.

Children who participate in the program say the garden has changed their views about vegetables.

Fifth-grader Vanessa Barraza, 11, said she eats more vegetables now and that she has even started growing her own flowers at home after working in the school's garden.

Alex Cortez, 11, said he is growing watermelons that he can't wait to eat this summer.

"It's fun," Vanessa said of her work. The reason is simple, she explained: "Because we get to get our hands dirty!"

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Gardening is one of many efforts pursued by the coalition to combat hunger in children.

The group also supports the "Start Your Head" public information program, which encourages young people to eat breakfast. It staffs a hotline, (800) EAT-N-GRO, to direct young people to places where they can get free food in the summer after school cafeterias close.

Carolyn Olney, who also works for the hunger coalition, said the group has one main purpose.

"It's all done with the goal that kids, even if they're poor, have enough to eat."

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