Category Archives: School Gardens

Designing for Food Security: Leveraging Design to Grow Communities and Feed Cities

By Jessica Karr and Tiffani Patton


What does it mean to design for food security?

We found out a few weeks ago at San Francisco Design Week.

On a sunny, but windy, Thursday evening, a mix of Slow Foodies, designers, and social justice advocates gathered in the Parklab Community Garden to discuss how communities can design for food security through urban farming. The rockstar panel included perspectives from leading Bay Area nonprofits, educators, and vertical farming pioneers.

Urban farms can be sites of abundance and foster deeper connection to land, food, and community. Urban gardening, or farming, has been gaining increasing popularity over the past 10 years as community advocates push for urban gardens and farms as a way to combat food insecurity and foster connection. Urban farms can also be signifiers of displacement through gentrification, when they don’t center inclusivity. Because design plays such a huge role in food insecurity — through practices such as redlining which created areas of food apartheid (see Karen Washington’s article). Slow Food wanted to explore how we can instead design for security.   

The panel was moderated by Wendy Leicht, the creator of We’re grateful to Wendy, our five panelists, and to our wonderful guests who withstood the cold wind to hear the great discussion!

Logan Ashcraft, our private sector panelist, currently leads the energy team at Plenty, an indoor farming company. Plenty aims to build an indoor farm outside every metropolitan area on Earth, increasing access to healthy food, slashing greenhouse gas emissions from the conventional agricultural monoculture model, and decreasing emissions by reducing the distance from farm to fork.

Anesti Vega, the executive board member for Acta Non Verba, strives especially to improve food security by enabling the youth to become future leaders. Acta Non Verba, a nonprofit organization based in East Oakland, elevates life in the inner-city by challenging oppressive dynamics and environments through urban farming. Anesti emphasized the need to understand a situation before intervening to help. He shared a story of Detroit, where a man decided to give free food away because he saw the number of hungry people; what the man didn’t realize was that some African-American farmers had been selling food at very low prices, and his free food was actually undercutting them, thereby worsening the economic condition. It is easy to jump into “Savior” mode and throw a half-baked solution at a problem, but that approach often exacerbates matters.  It is important to take a step back, talk with those who are impacted, and get direction from impacted folks who are likely already doing the work. Anesti recommends only working to intervene once you’ve been immersed in an environment and spoken with the others who are working to solve the problems.

Haleh Zandi, fearless co-founder of Planting Justice, is dedicated to building alliances with diverse communities and practicing strategies that resist the environmental and social violence of the industrial food system. Planting Justice, also based in East Oakland, hires teams of formerly incarcerated landscapers and pays them a living wage while they build edible gardens throughout the East Bay and cultivate urban farms and training centers. Both Haleh and Anesti grounded the panel in historical knowledge U.S. land acquisition and use, with thoughtful reminders that this San Francisco Bay Area was originally Ohlone land that was stolen from them,  and that it is important for us to acknowledge that and speak truth, because forgetting is another form of violence.

Natasha Margot Blum told the story of Hayes Valley Farm, where she co-taught the Permaculture Design Course. Permaculture applies a set of design principles to care for the earth and care for the people. The Hayes Valley Farm was a 2.2-acre interim-use urban farm project collaboration between a core group of designers, farmers and educators, the city of San Francisco, and the community of Hayes Valley. The site, a former urban wasteland, was transformed into a volunteer-ran urban farm that gave away its products. After three years, the farm was cleared for development, but the lesson remains that permaculture and a team of passionate people can turn a small and oft-overlooked plot of land and rubble into a beautiful and productive urban farm that feeds and inspires. Natasha’s path as a design researcher and consultant has been heavily influenced by Permaculture Design as she brings the principles into her everyday work.

Maggie Marks, the executive director of Garden for the Environment (GFE) and a proud new mother, discussed how GFE aims to educate any and all San Franciscans on how to garden. Their beautiful teaching garden is located in the Sunset, and they are actively teaching workshops as well as a full gardening course every summer.

A special thanks to Phat Beets Produce, who brought us jackfruit sliders and jalapeno cornbread, an organization that centers justice in all of its work. They work to create a healthier, more equitable food system in Oakland and beyond through providing affordable access to fresh produce, facilitating youth leadership in health and nutrition education, and connecting small farmers to urban communities via the creation a CSA, community farm stands, markets, and youth entrepreneurship.

We hope that our guests who attended, or just read the blog, were inspired to collaborate and build an inclusive, supportive community that improves food sovereignty, especially in marginalized communities. Please check out Planting Justice, Acta Non Verba, and GFE and join for a volunteer day or a class. Slow Food invites you to check our website for upcoming events.

If you enjoyed the plots at the Parklab Community Garden, please contact Sally Rogers – sally@slowfoodsanfrancisco – we’d love to build our team of gardeners at Slow Food!

Pictured from left to right: Maggie Marks (Garden for the Environment), Natasha Margot Blum (design consultant), Haleh Zandi (Planting Justice), Anesti Vega (Acta Non Verba), Logan Ashcraft (Plenty), and Wendy Leicht (

Get Involved by Volunteering!

As Slow Food San Francisco looks forward, we have lots of ways for people to volunteer and get more involved in community and food. These are the first of many opportunities with Slow Food San Francisco! We are grateful for your support, and could not do this work without your support. We look forward to seeing you at an upcoming event!

  • Childhood Obesity Bay Area Conference: The Childhood Obesity Bay Area (COBA) conference is an annual event hosted by Slow Food San Francisco to bring awareness, education, and solutions to a national epidemic. Now in our sixth year, we are looking for volunteers this fall to play large leadership roles in planning and executing the event on Saturday, November 4th at UCSF. If interested please reach out to Sally Rogers:
  • Community and Partnerships Committee of Slow Food San Francisco: The Community and Partnerships Committee is looking for members to be involved in creating connections within the community and developing educational workshops that facilitate growth and expansion of the values behind Slow Food. This could be any part of the following process: creating a relationship with a local business to use their space and developing, scheduling and executing a workshop featuring a local talent. Please contact
  • School Gardens Committee of Slow Food San Francisco: SFSF has implemented gardens in several schools in San Francisco as well as hosted a tour of a garden at a prior COBA conference. We will be organizing an event on Earth Day 2017 (April) in conjunction with a few other organizations in SF that will be interactive for families. We are currently seeking volunteers to help with this event and who are eager to push Slow Food principles to the youth for future projects in this Committee. Tasks may include: helping maintain organization; picking up donations, set up and clean up, being a “game leader” when we break off into groups, keeping track of raffle ticket sales, some marketing and helping the workshop leaders with their tasks. Contact if you are interested.
  • Communications Committee of Slow Food San Francisco: Want to use your voice to connect people to Slow Food San Francisco? Our Communications Committee is looking for key volunteers to help with the monthly newsletter, redesigning our website and social media outreach. If you’re interested, get in touch with

Past Events:

  • Slow Wine 2017 Tour: Next Tuesday, January 24th, Slow Wine will be in downtown San Francisco! We would love for you to volunteer at the event from 12-5, helping with logistics (registration, coat check, etc.). You would have significant breaks during that timeframe, however, so you would have access to explore the event and all the fabulous Italian wine! Contact if you are able to help.

Connecting Tortillas to the Garden: Teaching Entrepreneurship to Elementary School Students in Honduras

As portrayed in the news, Honduras is a place of economic struggle and a challenged education system. Despite the country’s strife, Lolita and I decided to visit the area and were relieved to find evidence that efforts are being made to help the country’s children. Cerro Grande (the Big Hill) is a small elementary school located in a low income neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital. Incorporating entrepreneurship and small business management into the regular academic curriculum, this school is striving to change the outcome for its students.  Under the leadership of the director, Professora Irma Lopez, the school staff has taken limited resources and a lot of creativity to develop school gardens and create workshops topics ranging from food preparation and manufacturing to carpentry and handicrafts for the home.  Teachers work alongside students to produce goods for the local markets to earn money for the school’s needs while teaching reading, writing, mathematics, science, health and computer skills.  The organization incorporates all grade levels, from first through sixth, and all students, boys and girls, into a comprehensive program recognized as a pioneer in elementary education.

We were met by Silvia Zavala, chief agriculture officer and head of the school garden program, and given a tour of the school’s facility.  She took us around the workshops, school garden and to a couple of classrooms and introduced us to many of her colleagues and the students involved in the school’s activities.


School Garden

Situated on the steep hillside behind the school classrooms and assembly area are the terraces that contain the school garden.  Soil is scarce atop the underlying rock base so used car tires are placed in rows and filled with soil and organic matter to serve as the substrate for the plantings of herbs and vegetables.  Empty PET water and soda pop containers are trimmed and used for seedling trays or filled with water and used as boundaries for planting beds.

Drip irrigation is installed throughout the garden.  It not only demonstrates a modern agriculture practice but teaches water conservation in a region subject to periods of drought.  The school is able to partner with agriculture technicians supplied by iDE, an international NGO focused on establishing family gardens in Honduras.  The group also built a large cistern to store water and installed mechanical pumps operated by the up-and-down action of the kids playing on a seesaw or on a modified step masters – providing both exercise and entertainment while filling an overhead container that gravity feeds water through the irrigation tubes.

The students study the soil and learn when they need to add compost or lime to fertilize the plants.  They use worm bins to decompose the plant wastes and use vermicompost teas to supplement the natural fertilizers.

The lettuce, mustard, beets, carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes, chayotes, cilantro, parsley, squash, and beans are harvested throughout the year and sold in the local Saturday market outside the school grounds.


The School Kitchen

In this part of the school, the students learn the techniques of food preparation and food hygiene using produce from the school garden or from the local farmers market.  The students learn how to elaborate products that are commonly consumed in the local households like jams made from tropical fruits such as pineapple, papaya, black berries and mango.  Tortillas are eaten daily and the school produces their own value added version incorporating carrots and beets from the garden.  Besides the corn base, the added vegetables enhance the nutrition and add color to the traditional staple.  They taste great, too.

Silvia said that the program influences the children’s eating habits since the daily mid- morning snacks produced in the school kitchen may be the first meal for those not able to eat breakfast at home.  She also went on to say that many students are now starting gardens in their homes. We were happy to see that Slow Food principles of good, clean and fair food are becoming part of the lifestyles of everybody connected to the Cerro Grande School.

I Just Want to Learn Everything!

Kids painting personal pots in Sanchez garden

Kids painting personal pots in Sanchez garden

Last week, a gaggle of young students gathered at Sanchez Elementary School for “Cooking and Gardening Camp: All Plant Parts.” Hosted by the school and 18 Reasons, this four-day summer camp focused on the science and art of growing and cooking edible plants. The kids, ranging in age from 9 – 12, came from public schools all over the city – joining together to get their hands dirty both in the garden and the kitchen.

Rosie Branson Gill, program director at 18 Reasons, and Athena Barouxis, Sanchez School Garden Coordinator, led the camp activities which ranged from dissecting flowers to trying out new knife skills. The camp took place in the middle of Sanchez Elementary’s magical garden – complete with raised beds of countless edible plants, multiple compost bins and a vertical, hydroponic wall teeming with kale and chard growing over a sunken pool of Koi.

Sanchez principal Isola's support prominently displayed in the garden

Sanchez principal Isola's support prominently displayed in the garden

Rosie explained the importance of this camp: “All Plant Parts camp is part of an on-going relationship between 18 Reasons and The Sanchez School. Together we are teaching kids how to enjoy growing, cooking and eating fresh and delicious food. We feel that, if kids are engaged at a young age, they’re more likely to embrace good, clean food and hopefully maintain a healthier lifestyle.”

The kids seemed thrilled with the prospect. On the first day they learned about seeds and roots and “FBI” (fungus, bacteria and invertebrates) in the morning and then tried out their new “claw” and “bridge” moves with their knives as they chopped carrots and sliced radishes for their seed & root sandwiches. They even took turns shaking a glass jar full of heavy cream to make their own butter! Throughout the week they made every single thing they ate. Though a few kids appeared a bit reluctant to try some of the more exotic plants and foods, Rosie encouraged all the kids to try everything twice and taught them, “Don’t yuck my yum!”

Rosie encourages kids to play with their food

Rosie encourages kids to play with their food

Slow Food San Francisco has had a relationship with Sanchez school for years and has funded many components of their garden with money raised at other events like Golden Glass, Food from the Heart, etc. Recent donations have funded many aspects of the school’s garden including:

– Upgrading the original Sanchez School garden to include drip irrigation, wooden planter boxes, redwood pathway markers, benches, and the relocation of lemon trees.

– Restoring and repairing the rainy day assembly area art and murals

– Maintaining and upgrading the Native Plants and Sculpture Garden

Slow Food San Francisco was thrilled to participate in the All Plant Parts summer camp by providing scholarships for two students to attend from Sanchez school. And to see these kids gleefully playing in the garden and soaking up the cooking and planting lessons – it was well worth the investment. At one point they tried to outdo each other – describing the gardens at their own schools and trying to see who had the most fruit trees*. And then, when asked what she hoped to learn during the week, little Mady, age 8, exclaimed, “I just want to learn everything!”

Kate, age 9, focuses on her knife skills

Kate, age 9, focuses on her knife skills

* These kids are lucky enough to have gardens at their schools due in large part to the efforts of the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance.