The Power of One – it takes only one student to inspire a village

The story of a student, a garden and the national obesity epidemic.  An 11 year old middle school student inspires the fight against childhood obesity & promotes environmental stewardship with an organic garden classroom.

The Story:

Childhood obesity has tripled in the last thirty years and America now ranks number one globally with this unwelcome distinction. If you add to this fact the unprecedented escalation of childhood diabetes and a national school lunch program that bases nutrition on numerical chemistry components set  forth by the USDA rather than fresh, nutritious food, the landscape for our children’s health is a mine field of processed foods high in trans fats and sugary beverages with nary a fresh vegetable or fruit in sight. This of course is a sight that is worth shuddering about and getting fired up about. Some adults have been doing just that such as renowned Chef Jamie Oliver’s crusade for reforming the US school lunch program seen recently on national television but seldom do you hear about the message for reform being led by the students themselves.  This is the story of how one 11 year old girl decided to take action to help change this unhealthy landscape through her own actions and thus adding her voice to tackling the broken system.

The saying “it takes a village” does not apply to seventh grade student Gabby Scharlach, now age 12, who single handedly started an Organic Edible Garden Classroom & Outdoor Kitchen at her middle school. Gabby, inspired by Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard project and Michelle Obama’s White House Organic Garden, wanted to do something good for her school and community. So at age 11, while in sixth grade, Gabby wrote a proposal over her school’s winter break for an Edible Garden Classroom to be built at Miller Creek Middle School and submitted it to her principal, Greg Johnson. Miller Creek Middle School is located in San Rafael, California, just north of San Francisco and the golden gate bridge.

In Gabby’s own words, “The garden is a place to teach and learn, and a place where students can help combat global warming and childhood obesity. It includes an outdoor kitchen that would be used by the students and for fund raising events so that chefs can help teach the students how to prepare healthy food. Even the community could use the space for events to promote health and caring for the environment.”

Principal Johnson, also a believer in the “farm to table” philosophy and slow food movement was so supportive of Gabby’s proposal that within days she was asked to present her idea to the school site council, the school district board, the home and school club (parent based pta) and various community non profit organizations. She successfully raised almost $30,000 in the next three months through private funding sources excited by her idea. Considering the current economic times that our schools are in and the cut backs that they have to face, the entire funding for the project came through donations and grants. The continuation of the garden will also come from public and private sector grants. This enables the garden to be totally off the financial responsibility of the school and district. Because of her leadership in launching this project Gabby also received the 2010 Marin Youth Activist award sponsored by Senator Mark Leno’s office.

The initial seed money officially jump started the development process moving forward and the Phase 1 garden construction by parent, student and community volunteers was launched mid summer  2010. The first garden planting milestone by the students and teachers was reached the week of November 15th right before the Thanksgiving break. It consists of a diversity of winter harvest vegetables, herbs and beneficial plants. The first harvest is anticipated to be late winter/early spring.

Principal Johnson notes that the edible garden as an outdoor classroom will add a tremendous value and create a sustainable layer of curriculum enrichment to the Middle School.  The overall goal of the outdoor classroom is to provide the Miller Creek students with an “experiential” learning environment that connects various aspects of organic gardening, basic nutrition, and culinary awareness/skills.  In addition, the garden is to provide a place where students can study life science and environmental sustainability concepts, slow food concepts, and a “farm to table” philosophy. The garden is tied to a rainwater harvesting system, will aim for organic certification, and is planning both solar and wind turbine power in Phase 2 to become totally off the grid. Also in Phase 2 the outdoor kitchen components along with the shade trellis and orchard will begin to take form. In Phase 3 Gabby hopes to extend the project funding to include creek restoration of Miller Creek located behind the school and garden. Miller Creek is a key artery for the Miller Creek watershed. With a classroom sized amphitheater even the drama, history, math and art teachers see the benefits that such a rich outdoor classroom provides.

The Garden Blog:

The Edible Garden Blog website created by Gabby is already being used for educational outreach and communication of the project’s goals, mission and schedule. Gabby has documented the garden’s inspiration and evolution while providing a weekly construction update as the garden progresses. Her next tasks include getting the garden to be certified organic, working with the garden coordinator to develop a plan for harvesting the produce by selling it to the Local Farmers Market, donating to local food banks and in eventually incorporating the produce into their school lunch program. For more information on the garden see:

Project Lunch:

With the support of Marin County  Supervisor Susan Adams , Gabby was introduced to Judi Shils, the Founder and Executive Director of  TEENS TURNING GREEN – a teen driven force for sustainable change. Judi asked Gabby to present the garden at a Project Lunch Stakeholder Group meeting. Teens Turning Green is a student led movement founded in the Bay Area devoted to education and advocacy around environmentally and socially responsible choices for individuals, schools and communities.  The PROJECT LUNCH program  spearheaded by Teens Turning Green aims to transform school lunch programs across Marin County.  Gabby will form a Project Lunch team at her middle school to get more of the student community engaged in this healthy food movement. The goal will be to eventually tie the garden produce harvest to their own lunch program.

A recent project lunch event on November 12th called the “School Lunch Challenge” featured a renowned group of six local chefs with support from thirty students, including Gabby, to cook meals for the 100 guests on a public school lunch budget of one dollar per student. Led by special guest Chef Ann Cooper, nationally known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, who is responsible for transforming the Berkeley California public school lunch program, the chefs came up with delicious healthy meals for  the evening’s event even though they ended up with a budget of $1.25 per person. As described by author Annie Spiegleman, in her Huffington Post article entitled Note to Parents: Get Pissed!, the chefs believe if they could have 25 to 50 cents more, per child, they could feed students a wide variety of delicious and highly nutritious lunches each day. See the full article in the Huffington Post by Spiegleman entitled Note to Parents- Get Pissed!

In full disclosure, I will end by saying that I am extremely proud of Gabby and what she has accomplished as both a landscape architect and her mother. Not only have her actions been inspiring to her school and  a catalyst to the surrounding community,  but they have also inspired and reminded her own parents and closest friends with the important message of the power that one voice can carry. It is a welcome and hopeful reminder that we can all do our part in making positive change in the world around us.

Preliminary Garden Goals:

If you are interested in starting an organic edible garden at your school here is a list of sustainability goals that Gabby considered.

  1. provide an experiential learning environment that connects with organic gardening, basic nutrition and culinary awareness
  2. expose students to hands on environmental learning
  3. enhance the curriculum by connecting it to the natural world
  4. provide students with the opportunity to grow and eat fresh produce
  5. build a school based ecosystem where there was none
  6. offer parents an opportunity to engage with the school community
  7. develop a program that will sustain itself from year to year
  8. develop a connection with local farms, food harvesting banks and local chefs who will add to the school curriculum and fundraising events
  9. make the school site more attractive where it  may be currently neglected
  10. if the garden is to be organic follow proper sustainable practices  so that the garden can become certified

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