Urban gardening is something that never ceases to amaze. Walking around Capitol Hill and seeing the ingenuity people display to grow their tomatoes and pumpkins in tiny and otherwise inhospitable spaces is not just a thing of beauty but a real triumph over the grim barrenness of the city.
And of all the triumphs involved in urban gardening, few are more inspiring or downright delightful around Capitol Hill than the garden at Watkins Elementary School. Not only is the garden a clever use of space that would otherwise be large swaths of grass with little use for anything but walking on or sitting, but it is also able to produce a respectable amount of vegetables– enough to pique the lucky students’ curiosity when it comes to food that you’ve grown from seed.
It’s easy to assume that all children are picky eaters, at least a little bit.
We’ve all heard the stories from former children and their family members delighting in the lack of sophistication of a child’s palate and waxing poetic about the strange or monotonous things said children would or would not eat: nothing but chicken nuggets; only smooth peanut butter and strawberry jam for breakfast and lunch; a determined aversion to undercooked carrots; or my personal favorite, which was stuffed grape leaves minus the grape leaf (so, just rice in a fancy case) for six months straight.
So imagine my surprise when, during a visit to Watkins Elementary School’s teaching kitchen and edible gardens, pretty much every single child in the class was beyond giddy and excited to pick fresh vegetables! And I was bowled over when they wanted to try them and test them and, then, eat them!
The teaching kitchen at Watkins is led by Jennifer Mampara, who works with students between first and third grade. There is a multidisciplinary approach to the teaching kitchen, as it instructs kids not only on nutritional matters, but also on biological and botanical aspects such as the parts of a plant and the different adaptations that plants develop and how they make them taste and look different.
Every class gets a chance to sit down with their own teacher and with Ms. Mampara, who guides them from sowing to harvesting and teaches them how to differentiate among the different in the vegetable garden. They journal, observe, color, and have what can only be described as a really awesome time (seriously– these kids were bouncing with glee from being outdoors, touching plants!). Then, once the veggies have been harvested, the class moves indoors: on the third floor, in Watkins’s teaching kitchen, the food is combined with famers’ market offerings– thanks to the generous donations from the FarmFresh Markets– and converted into delicious recipes. The day I observed, the class put together a really amazing stir fry with the sugar snap peas, onions, carrots, and bok choy the children picked fresh. The classroom was filled with an aroma that, like most of this experience, is hard to describe. I could earn my corniness badge and tell you that it, along with the happiness and the carnival feeling, were all magical: and they were.
Anytime something you thought could not really happen happens, it’s nothing short of magic.