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How Two Moms Brought Organic Food to an Urban School

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When moms Theresa Franklin and Lisa Mann asked their daughters' kindergarten class where vegetables came from, the students answered, "The grocery store." Not only did these kids have no idea where real veggies came from, they were also set on one thing: They didn't like them.

Rio Vista Garden

Something needed to be done to introduce these Los Angeles city kids (and their parents) to organic living and a healthier way of life. So together, these moms embarked on a challenging project: starting a kid-friendly learning garden where teachers could work with students on eco-friendly projects -- and reap the benefits of fresh food in the classroom.

The result was a healthier, happier elementary school that had over a dozen planting beds and enjoyed even more varieties of fruits and vegetables. We sat down with Theresa and Lisa to talk about their joint venture into organic gardening -- and winning over a tough audience.

momlogic: How did you two meet?

Teresa Franklin: I met Lisa Mann when our daughters were in the same kindergarten class. The PTA at their school was only 30 strong, and we both saw the need to get organized, grow and get other parents involved. So I became president and Lisa became vice president, and together over the next two years in office we wrote two grants, grew PTA membership to 250 parents and started this wonderful PTA-run garden for the teachers.

Now Lisa is the garden coordinator on the PTA board. With my daughter Philena no longer at Rio Vista Elementary, I retired as president, but continue to partner as a PTA community-member volunteer.

ml: How did the idea for the garden come about?

TF: One day, Lisa and I were talking about the lack of vegetarian options for children on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) lunch menu. We talked about how atrocious the salad option was, because it consisted of iceberg lettuce with, like, two carrot slivers and a single old cherry tomato. Yuck! It's no wonder why kids "don't like vegetables." If that was all I was served, I wouldn't like them, either. One of my pet peeves is a parent that says their child won't eat vegetables. I believe they will when [the veggies are] presented in a fun fashion. We wanted to do something to change this.

Lisa Mann: My dear friend and neighbor, Armando Fuentes, came to Back to School Night with me and my daughter, Kaylena, and he was carrying my baby, Kaia, around the school. He saw through the back fence that there was this huge, unused, overgrown space, and we started brainstorming ideas for a farm. We were told "no" several times -- and were even laughed at for having the idea. All the negative stuff just fueled the fire for Theresa and me.

Rio Vista Garden

TF: We had heard rumors that the unused property may be LAUSD land, so we researched and found it was actually parkland -- part of the adjacent North Wellington Park. So we set up a meeting with a Los Angeles park director. Armando tested the soil, then drew up a blueprint and made an album of past gardens he had supported. The director was into the idea as long as the garden had representation on the Park Advisory Board and was specifically for the school.

ml: Were there any obstacles in getting people on board with the program?

TF: Our major and horrible obstacle was that just a few weeks before we broke ground, our mentor and best volunteer, Armando Fuentes, passed away, never getting to see his dream fulfilled.

LM: Armando was so gifted with plants and landscaping. He had all the knowledge and vision of how to plan and grow, and losing him was a huge tragedy and definitely impacted our plans. It is a constant struggle to get people involved and to understand that you need to nurture what you plant; you can't just walk away and come back weeks later.

Theresa and I had numerous people tell us that it would never happen -- that we were crazy! The way the school system is makes it hard to take the time to come down to the garden for some classes, and that is insane because the benefit of learning through unconventional methods, such as farming, is invaluable!

TF: We also had to wait for some time to hear if we were approved for the Community Beautification Grant from the L.A. City Board of Public Works department. Once we were, the Rio Vista PTA members voted to go forward with the plan. Teachers at the school said, "If you ladies make it happen, we will come with the children."

The park is considered a field trip, so the teachers must fill out the field trip slips to go to the garden. There are still obstacles to overcome every day -- be it volunteers, the crabgrass or trying to get more teachers to use the garden for the benefit of their children. We just do our best strictly for the joy in the children's faces and the knowledge that they are learning life lessons.

ml: How do you use the garden and the veggies from it?

LM: We have had Free Salad Fridays after school, and would love to make that a regular event. We have also had students grow veggies and deliver them to a local food pantry as a way of kids giving back. The way the world is right now, I think educating children about the idea of sustainability is important; also, just giving them a chance to "learn" outside in a calm, beautiful environment is crucial.

TF: Teachers can cook with the veggies or make salads for the kids during class time. Some send fresh veggies home for the parents to cook. They can do science experiments. Sometimes we let them go to seed, so we can show how to collect the seeds to plant more as an example of sustainable gardening. It's all about learning.

ml: Tell us why this project holds such a special place in your hearts.

LM: The whole point of this project is growth, giving and knowledge -- something that will grow, evolve and thrive for many years to come. It's a labor of love! I grew up in the farmland of Colorado, and now, because of the Hidden Garden at Rio Vista, my kids have a love of nature, dirt, bugs, sun and good, nutritious food. And they understand how important it is to work and volunteer for things that matter! For me personally, I owe it to Armando to watch over his dream.

TF: When Lisa and I started thinking about this project, we asked the children where vegetables came from. They responded, "Ralphs" -- the closest grocery store. Now they know that their veggies come from a seed planted in the ground. I have a great love for this garden and the joy and knowledge it brings to the children. Every child can benefit from growing things.

They also love watering and weeding the plots, or searching for caterpillars on the milkweed. All children love to be outdoors and learning in a hands-on environment. They learn responsibility, life cycles and much more. Last year we had a failed crop, and it is good to learn that not everything always works out the way we expect it to. It's not perfect and there is always room for improvement. You cannot do it alone, and the seeds cannot grow without water and care.

ml: What role does healthy organic food play in your household?

TF: We are a vegetarian family, so we eat mainly veggies and beans. "Organic" is important to us, because of the taste and other reasons. We encourage our daughter to at least try all types and varieties of vegetables. As a result, she even loves kale, Brussels sprouts and beets.

In the summertime, I also volunteer with Rio Vista Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) bringing certified-organic, farm-fresh vegetables to families for a weekly low cost. This program runs year-round, and for every bag sold, $2 goes back to the Rio Vista PTA Hidden Garden.

LM: I have always eaten healthy because of allergies and severe migraines. Organic food is simply the best preventive measure. My kids have always been good eaters, never afraid to try new things. My youngest has literally grown up in the Hidden Garden and is known to pull stuff right off the vine or out of the ground to snack on!

Two years ago, I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and eating organic fruits and veggies has been a lifesaver! I have a peace of mind that my family is not being poisoned by the food they eat! I also am the liaison and work every week for our CSA, which is simply amazing and has allowed Theresa and me to do more in the garden and also in the classrooms.

ml: What lessons has the garden taught you and your children? 

LM: Too much to say in a few sentences. I've learned to breathe deep and appreciate life, never to give up and to give back what you have been given! My children know they played a part in something special and have learned countless life lessons -- and hopefully a way of thinking and eating that will be long-lasting.

TF: Maybe my thumb isn't as black as I first thought! It taught both Philena and me that volunteering is extremely important and enjoyable. We have learned to follow through with ideas even if they seem unrealistic. Everyone can follow their hearts and make something good happen, because change starts with you.

next: Bad Brother, Good Sister
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