One morning I came out of our house just as Jorge, a young man I knew, shuffled by in baggy pants. He was pouring a bag of Skittles into his mouth.
“Jorge!” I said. “Is that your breakfast?”
He nodded sheepishly. I lived on a busy street where from time to time I ran into Jorge, who had attended elementary school with my daughter, Carly, down the block. That campus housed a number of smaller schools, including Costanoa, a district-run program for students who had fallen behind at the bigger high schools. The morning of his Skittle breakfast, Jorge was a sophomore at Costanoa.
Some months later I ran into his mom. She lived with her family in the apartments down the hill from our house, and over the years I had talked with her often as she walked by with Jorge’s younger siblings.
“How’s Jorge?” I asked.
“He’s doing well,” she said in Spanish. “He’s working in the ROP garden at school, and he loves it so much he wants to apply to the horticulture program at Cabrillo [College].” When Costanoa moved to our campus, they had expanded the Life Lab garden halfway across the playing field. Students on campus labored in the garden and cooked from the bounty.
“He’s looking for space to start a vegetable garden for the family,” she said. Holding a cloth shopping bag, she said she was on her way to the natural food store to buy produce.
Jorge was a senior when I saw the flyer with his name on it. In conjunction with Food What, a food and health program using sustainable agriculture to empower youth, Jorge and his schoolmates were hosting a Harvest Festival at the Life Lab on the UCSC campus. As a member of our district Wellness Committee, I planned on attending the event to help Jamie Smith, our district’s new Director of Food Services, cook farm-fresh pizzas in a wood-burning oven.
It was a clear morning in October when I walked up the hill to the Life Lab garden overlooking the Monterey Bay. High school students were busy setting up stations for the festival, including one for carving pumpkins grown in the garden, one for tasting honey produced by the resident bees, and what turned out to be Jorge’s favorite, a hayride along the hill overlooking the ocean.
I found Frannie, who helps run the garden, stoking a fire in the wood-burning oven, a hive-like structure made of hay and mud. On a table next to the oven were jars of tomato sauce made from the Life Lab’s tomatoes, plus vegetables and herbs from the garden.
By ten when the students arrived, Jamie and Frannie were slinging the pizza dough Jamie had made early that morning, and students were eating slices with pumpkin, chard, onions, peppers, herbs, and even figs, faster than we could make them. The pumpkin tasted so sweet one student asked if it was pineapple.
I tracked Jorge down a week later, when he agreed to talk with me about his experience with Food What and the Agriculture program at Costanoa.
CE: How did you end up at Costanoa?
Jorge: When I went to [a regular high school] I started ditching class because … it felt like my teachers didn’t know how to teach a whole group of people. I felt like I was getting left behind. I stopped going to school, started hanging out with friends. We would all ditch together, eat at Del Pueblo, walk to the park.