Reflections from Longfellow Middle School

Written by Daisy Schadlich
Fall 2017

For those who don’t already know what I did for my project, here’s the deal: in September I got the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI) newsletter that had a list of cool opportunities for students or graduates. I saw that Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) was taking applications for interns in the garden or nutrition departments, and I decided to apply. In high school I did my senior project (a highly involved and rigorous research paper and thorough presentation) on garden and nutrition education in elementary schools in America, so I was psyched to have this opportunity to engage directly with the topics I’d previously only researched! I applied on the spot and was accepted by Ellen at Longfellow Middle School as a garden intern.

As I wrap up my time at Longfellow Middle School, I find myself reflecting on my experiences there. I’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs with this internship. It was certainly a challenge; I was not always sure of where I stood in the eyes of the students or my seniors, and I experienced a lot of different emotions surrounding this position. I feel that I have learned from the experience and gleaned a lot of practical knowledge of the food system since I began the internship.

To give you an idea of the highs and lows I’ve had at Longfellow, here’s a brief list of some noteworthy events:

  • It was quite difficult to get started, as I had to complete lots of paperwork for BFI and BUSD after getting accepted for the internship in the middle of September, a solid few weeks into the semester.
  • Going to Spiral Gardens on my first day with Ellen, my supervisor, and picking out plants – that place is great! We then planted kale, collard greens, and some perennials.
  • My first SENECA class. It’s a program for students with behavioral disabilities. This was a shock for me, having never worked in education before.
  • One sassy girl insulted my Chacos. She clearly has a lot to learn…
  • I fell into a rhythm of going down there only to realize I needed to do about twice as many hours a week to complete the minimum hour requirement. This led to a bit of a tantrum, which gave way to a panic attack, and finally some planning. I chatted with Ellen and we decided I’d roughly double my hours by going in on Mondays to help with the nutrition and cooking classes, and I’d complete a project at home to improve the kitchen space at Longfellow.
  • As a result of the increased hours, I felt significantly more comfortable in the gardening spaces, around the students, and with Ellen. I realized how extensive her knowledge is about gardening and began asking more questions. She’s been a wonderful resource for me.
  • Because of unforeseen challenges with her colleagues that came up recently, it has been more difficult for Ellen to teach the nutrition and cooking classes.

Apart from acclimating to the job, there was a steep learning curve for me at Longfellow. This internship tested my patience, ability to interact with young students, and, of course, my understanding of the food system. I could talk all day about how challenging it is to work in public education or how teaching gardening was not nearly as joyful or rewarding as I’d expected. However, that was not the fascinating part of this internship, the captivating part was learning how difficult it is to effectively communicate the importance of healthy food to students.

One thing that Ellen said this semester that stuck with me because it was something I hadn’t thought about, was that sometimes students reject healthy food because it has a stigma attached to it (i.e. “white people food” or “rich people food”). This really resonated with me. As far as I’d learned, the biggest barrier to improving the health of a community (and ultimately the planet) is getting healthy food to deprived areas. Therein lies the problem. What do you do when different stigmas negatively alter a community’s perceptions of healthy food? I’ve learned about this barrier in my research, but I’d never had to directly address this phenomenon. Approaching this issue isn’t straightforward at all, especially when you only have four nutrition/cooking classes to convince a stubborn middle school student that it is, in fact, good for them. It seems that the most effective approach is simply for the kids to produce the food themselves. If they put time and effort into growing and cooking food, they’re more willing to try it.  

I can’t say that I even saw the results of this theory come to fruition, but I did observe and assist in some cooking classes where the students were skeptical because the recipes included “whole grain” and vegetables or fruit instead of cheese or sugar. At the end of those classes, the students ate their creation and liked it. Ellen has told me that she’s had parents approach her and say that they couldn’t get their kids to eat well at home until they’d tried some of her recipes in cooking class and discovered whole grain isn’t so bad after all.

What I personally value is that now these kids at least know the difference between whole and processed grains, natural sugar and added sugar, etc., they are aware of the different nutritional values, and can identify these products on packaging; they are now better informed consumers. They may not immediately act on this knowledge, but it’s so important that they at least know how to eat healthy so that when they are given the choice, they can choose the healthier option. It is this preemptive work that is foundational to creating a healthy community. So, while this internship had its fair share of difficulties, I’m proud to have worked in education and hopefully made some sort of impact on these students’ lives.

One of my biggest takeaways from this internship was that the knowledge we gain in the classroom at Cal doesn’t always translate to the practical, hands-on experience necessary to catalyzing change. While it’s helpful to have the background in food systems, it wasn’t usually my knowledge of gardening that was challenged, it was almost always a matter of how to effectively communicate the importance of the issues at hand with students. Moving forward, it would be helpful for students to take some sort of communication or education class in addition to the food systems classes.

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