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A garden tour raises funds for healthy food education

on July 26, 2010

In the shade of large, leafy lettuce and kale and tall stalks of beans, approximately 150 Bay Area residents met Saturday at the Saint Martin de Porres Elementary School garden to show their support for the nonprofit organization that planted it to give Oakland students a chance to learn about nutrition. The Oakland Based Urban Gardens organization kicked off their third-annual art and garden tour and main fundraiser by showing off just what their students have accomplished in North Oakland.

Oakland Based Urban Gardens, or OBUGS, provides in-school and after-school programs and summer camps for children ages 2 to 16 in eight different Oakland schools or day care centers. Seven of the program’s nine gardens are in West Oakland; the Saint Martin de Porres campus hosts the only OBUGS garden that serves students in North Oakland. The program serves about 700 youth a year, giving them a chance to learn proper nutrition habits and to grow and cook their own food. “We’re another [after-school program] option,” said Erin-Kate Escobar, OBUGS’ volunteer and internship program coordinator. “Like you can do football or band or basketball, you can do OBUGS.”

The organization funds itself primarily through grants, but uses the annual garden tour as its main fundraiser and to get community members involved. Attendees paid $65 before the event or $75 at the door (bicyclists paid a discounted rate of $40), which admitted them into the Saint Martin de Porres student garden in Oakland and three private home gardens in Lafayette. Many garden aficionados attended, as did friends and family of the founders and staff; all were encouraged to stop by the Oakland student garden first before driving or taking BART to Lafayette.

The Saint Martin de Poores school garden boasts an overflowing herb section.

The Saint Martin de Porres garden sits in a tiny lot in front of the school on 40th Street, and served as the first stop on Saturday’s tour.  The students and OBUGS staff and volunteers have transformed what used to be an empty, concrete lot into a green haven, blanketed with mulch below. A purple chain-link fence protects the vegetables, which are planted in raised beds. Fruit trees, including cherry, persimmon, apple, fig and pear, line the inside edge of the fence, and a butterfly garden graces the front of the garden nearest 40th Street.

Brightly colored signs stood out amidst the plants to identify what is currently planted, including strawberries, tomatoes, winter squash, zucchini, lettuce, cucumber, eggplant, carrots, beans, kale, spinach, and corn. An herb garden sits near the entrance; students are harvesting parsley, chives, tarragon, thyme, sage, lemon verbena, cilantro, oregano, sorrel, and mint. A bin with other colorful signs was placed near the gate, a reminder of other vegetables that had been planted in the past or in another season.

OBUGS staff members had placed colorful signs with children’s faces around the garden to show attendees who they were supporting and how the organization helps them. Students had written out answers to questions, such as “What is your favorite thing about OBUGS?” (“When we get to have pet snails,” wrote second-grader Haley) and “What has OBUGS taught you about growing food?” (“About plants and how plants have babies,” wrote third-grader Kelly.)

“We’re mainly emphasizing healthy eating,” Escobar said. “We’re not here to emphasize vegetarianism or veganism or anything like that. It’s more like, are you getting fruits and vegetables? Are you able to eat a balanced meal? A lot of [our students] don’t have that much access to this sort of knowledge or this plethora of fruits and vegetables surrounding them. So that’s really what we’re stressing with kids: Try everything, try to get a balance, try to eat a rainbow of colors in every meal. You’ve got to have as many colors as you can in every meal that you’re eating. And we talk about what those colors do for our bodies, how they affect us in different ways.”

Colorful signs help students and visitors alike navigate around the Saint Martin de Porres school garden, a project of the Oakland Based Urban Gardens.

OBUGS was founded in 1998 by longtime friends Margaret Majua of Lafayette and Dorothy Noyon of San Francisco after a discussion they had about how they could help other families. “We were talking about how the plight of single moms and how hard it was to be a single mom. From that conversation we started thinking, ‘Well, maybe we should try to do something to help families that aren’t as fortunate as our families,’” said Majua. “Since we’re both gardeners, and we met gardening, we’re passionate about gardening. We decided to do some kind of program in a garden setting.”

“We knew that a garden is an extraordinary place where many things can happen,” said Noyon. “Not just gardening, but peace and happiness to the children and the adults. It can be used for many, many purposes.”

They chose West Oakland as a starting place quite by accident—not knowing much about the differences in Oakland neighborhoods, they put their roots in the neighborhood closest to Majua’s office in Jack London Square. Their first garden opened in 1998 at the Lafayette Elementary School on 18th Street and Market, with Majua and Noyon teaching the after school classes themselves.

Students take a hands-on approach in the gardens in all of the programs OBUGS offers; in fact, staff and volunteers consider the gardens to be the students’. The program works with the host schools to provide a science-based curriculum that focuses on nutrition. The after-school and summer camp programs also focus on nutrition, but allow students more time to spend in the garden planting, harvesting, and cooking their own food.

“At first we didn’t realize the importance of nutrition,” said Noyon. “Very quickly we realized we needed to focus on the importance of nutrition in a neighborhood that is very poor, that has very few stores and very bad food habits. So little by little we have put much more emphasis on nutrition.”

Regular OBUGS volunteers, like Debbie Lindemann of Oakland, were on hand to guide visitors through the garden and then on to the day’s next events, which included viewing professional architects’ gardens at their homes in Lafayette. She and her family got involved two years ago as a service project affiliated with her daughter’s Oakland high school.

“We got involved because we like eating healthy. The programs that they offer through the elementary schools, the community gardens, and the school gardens we thought [were] in line with how we think people should think,” Lindemann said. “And we liked the school programs, where it’s not just having the gardens, it’s teaching the children about the gardens.”

Visitors who had never seen an OBUGS garden before Saturday strolled slowly through the plots, and some, like gardener Paula Delehanty of Fairfax, took notes for their own home gardens. “I’m just really impressed, not only with what they’re doing for the kids but with how beautiful this garden is,” she said. “Not only is it that the plants look beautiful but the place looks beautiful. They created a space that looks very pretty and aesthetically pleasing, too.”

For Majua, that pretty garden is the first step in making a difference for the children who come into her gardens each day. She hopes that they will take the knowledge they’ve gained about the Earth and the food they eat—as well as the food itself—to their families and friends.

“You know, it’s very corny and very simple, but the goal of OBUGS is just to change the life of one person who might change the life of another person who might change the life of another person,” she said.

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  1. […] in 1998 by longtime friends Margaret Majua of Lafayette and Dorothy Noyon of San Francisco and relies on grants and fundraisers to offer its […]

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