Planting seeds in SF’s students

Students in Downtown High School's FORK program visit San Francisco's Alemany Farm on Aug. 29. The students were able to pick and taste fresh fruits and learned about organic, farm-to-table gardening. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Downtown High School senior Jessica Alvarez plucked a pair of bright red strawberries from a patch of greenery at Alemany Farm adjacent to Highway 280 in San Francisco, holding them up to the sun to inspect them on a recent Wednesday morning.

“Look at these two,” the 18-year-old said to her friend Yanira Perez, also a senior. “These look beautiful.”

Perez, who began visiting the garden last spring as part of the school’s Farming Organically to Revolutionize Kitchens (FORK) program, eyed the fruit as she continued searching for a strawberry for herself to eat. “I have fun coming here,” she explained. “There’s fruits that I had never tried until I tried them here.”

The two seniors were among the roughly two dozen students from Downtown High School who attended the school’s first field trip of the school year to Alemany Farm, where first-time visitors were given a tour and introduced to the gardening tools. Those who had spent their past spring semester coming to the garden also became reacquainted with the space.

The 3.5-acre site, owned and managed by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, is The City’s largest public garden. Residents are encouraged to help maintain the site and are invited to sample any of the fruit or vegetables grown there.

The same goes for students, who began visiting the garden on class field trips as part of the Rec and Park Department’s youth stewardship program in April 2014. Wednesday marked the 54th of such field trips, and the first of the school year for Downtown High School.

“It’s such a tangible way for youths to feel connected to the Earth and to their parks, but it’s in a way that actually benefits them,” said Zoe Burton, the youth volunteer and education coordinator who manages the stewardship program. “They get to eat the food, so creating that connection is what makes a site like this really, really unique.”

That’s exactly what the FORK program at Downtown High aims to achieve with its students: The notion that anyone can garden and enjoy fresh food.

“Organic is for everybody. It’s not something you only get at Whole Foods,” said Yesenia Nyland, who co-founded the FORK program at Downtown High last fall. “We try to get [students] excited about growing food and trying new things to eat.”

Nyland said she loves the outdoors and wants to share that level of appreciation with her students. That’s why she applied for a grant through a San Francisco Unified School District bond for money to build Downtown High School’s first garden.

Downtown High was one of three schools to receive such a grant, to the tune of $100,000, which the school put toward designing a garden that opened on the first day of school.

“Right now we have a lot of dirt, no plants,” Nyland said of the school’s garden. “We’re just waiting for a check-off from the architects and then we’re going to start planting.”

The garden will piggyback off a successful after-school cooking program at the school, allowing students to learn cooking skills with food they grow themselves.

As for Alemany Farm, students in the FORK program will continue to visit the site throughout the school year, both on field trips and at their leisure.

“FORK is a great partnership between SF Rec and Park, Downtown High School and Friends of Alemany Farm,” Phil Ginsburg, general manager of Rec and Parks Department, said in a statement. “We are excited to share the farm-to-table values and cultivate urban farming skills.”

Felix Alonso, 17, enjoys the hard work in gardening.

“The labor, the sweat,” he added. “ I like the idea of having a system where you plant, then take, then plant again, and do it over and over without ever wasting anything.”

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