The Santa Barbara School District has proposed developing a 12-acre property it owns in the Hidden Valley area close to Arroyo Burro Creek. The plan includes a working organic farm with buildings and facilities to teach up to 120 students at a time. Farm-to-table practices, agriculture and sustainability, and environmental literacy lessons are planned. Students would be bussed to and from the site daily. The property is currently grassland, chaparral and mature oak woodland.
Is this robust development proposed for a relatively pristine natural area in close proximity with the urban footprint the best use of this property? Is it possible to step back and consider other scenarios that could develop better outcomes for students, the school district and the community, not to mention the preservation of scarce urban wildness?
The district’s property is a “gem in the rough” in an urban environment. That is its value. Minimal effort could restore it to its previous natural splendor. Adjacent properties are moving in that direction. The Hidden Valley site could provide students a more realistic experience in a natural setting than a highly unnatural combination of buildings, asphalt, sidewalks, oak woodland, and agriculture.
The City Creeks Division is in escrow to purchase the adjacent parcel of seven acres, currently being farmed, between the district property and the creek. The intent of the city is to restore the property to its pre-farmed natural state, eliminating the farm. Arroyo Burro Creek benefits from other restoration projects creating as much of a natural reserve as possible in the areas that the creek travels to the ocean. This portion of the creek runs year round through mostly undeveloped areas. Voters recently blocked a proposed housing development along this creek indicating their desire to keep the area in its natural state.
Environmental literacy is a vital element of education in this age. Students of land use cannot deny the fact that the farming of annual crops for the last 10,000 years has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest elements of destruction of the natural environment that man has devised. The juxtaposition of an active farm, even an organic one next to a designated “natural area”, for education purposes, presents an interesting, and difficult, irony for educators.
But what about agriculture? Young people of this era, as Americans in general, are woefully ignorant of where their food comes from, how it is grown, and the skills to grow, choose, and prepare food for the health of the body. The 25-year-old promises of better yields, less poisons and chemicals, and healthier foods from genetically modified crops are all an abject failure and need to be abandoned. Detectable and arguably harmful levels of poisons occurring in baby formula, breakfast cereals, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and most other conventional foods is frightening and needs to be addressed if the country is ever going to reduce its increasing rate of chronic diseases. Meaningful participation in food growing and preparation for our students is essential to their health and well being. But I think students deserve a more focused opportunity in this vital arena than can be had by occasionally being bussed to visit agriculture and food prep facilities in the middle of a bucolic riparian corridor.
Thanks in part to the Orfalea and Audacious Foundations and Explore Ecology, Santa Barbara is blessed with outdoor classrooms, teachers, and functioning gardens at every elementary campus. All youngsters are being trained in soil husbandry and growing food, fiber, and flowers. Two secondary campuses have food gardens; the newest at La Cumbre Junior High School is a state-of-the-art outdoor classroom, but not a farm. Santa Barbara High has more of a functional student-worked urban farm providing food for the cafeteria. I believe the potential for production agriculture in the secondary schools of the district is not being realized.
I was fortunate to participate in a production school farm at Carpinteria High School a few years ago. We had less than a third of an acre in intensive, no till, self standing, permanent raised-bed agriculture. We started with “soil” that was 6-foot-deep roadcut fill that had been covered for decades by an asphalt parking lot. Asphalt removed, by the third year, this enlivened new farm was producing over three tons of fresh food a school year for the district kitchens and the local food bank. Cafeteria waste food and landscape prunings were composted and returned to the land. Irrigation water was delivered efficiently via drip tape. The farm is now being leased to a local organic grower. Though the district did own other farmland within a few miles, the economy, convenience, and utility for students and staff of having a farm on the campus was obvious.
There are six secondary school sites in Santa Barbara. All the sites have space for intensive urban farms that could produce literally tons of produce every year for each kitchen. Students could participate without being bused offsite; harvested produce would not have to be trucked to the kitchens. Think reduced carbon footprint and efficient use of time. Even students who are not interested in participating would be exposed to the “growing” on their campus. Think school community. District elementary students are receiving seven years of garden education. There is little or no opportunity to apply that knowledge and experience in a meaningful and productive fashion on the junior high and high school levels.
When visiting secondary-school campuses, one is impressed by the resources being expended for stadiums, aquatic centers, engineering centers, theaters, and much more. One has to think that healthy food, the ultimate source of all human achievements, is not even an afterthought. Where are the gardens? The urban farms? The excitement generated by successfully nurturing edible and beautiful plants to maturity by elementary students is palpable at times. Why is this excitement not being given an opportunity for expression as our children mature to adolescence and young adulthood?
SBUSD embodies excellence by providing fresh, healthy, nature-based foods from its kitchens to insure students’ well being. At the elementary level, students are learning and experiencing the beauty of growing landscapes; edible plants, flowers, birds, and insects. All are part of a vital lesson needed in the modern era. America’s agricultural system is mostly invisible to the urban population centers. The district’s current plan reinforces this dichotomy. Busing secondary students to a farm far away from their home campuses cannot compare to participating regularly at one’s own school, helping the miracle of creating meaningful amounts of food, beauty, and community.
Bill Palmisano is a landscaper, educator, and composter.