Fifty-one public elementary schools in Miami Dade County have edible container gardens. Sixteen of those are food forests — outdoor learning labs where almost everything you see planted, you can eat.
The edible forests range from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. Most are organic and designed not to need watering, so they produce food all year long.
The program began in 2007 as “Plant A Thousand Gardens Collaborative Nutrition Initiative,” and morphed into the Education Fund’s Citi Garden in 2014, primarily funded by Citibank.
This spring, the 16th food forest was built at Lake Stevens Elementary in Miami Gardens, by students from pre-K through fifth grade, Citi employees, parents, and teachers.
Timon Balloo, executive chef of the Sugarcane Raw Bar and Grill in Miami, was given a tour by students, and he harvested greens to use at his restaurant.
Eddie Recinos is the senior program manager and a former art teacher who developed the concept after inspiring conversations with master gardeners. Recinos wanted to re-create the way people grew food originally, so he used perennials, subtropicals from around the world, and native plants to mimic nature, creating ecosystems grown in layers around the “forest.”
In the first year, 10 schools got a food forest. The larger ones now grow enough food to do a weekly harvest distributed to 200 students; the students from the smaller ones do a bi-monthly distribution, while cafeterias use the food as a supplement.
Foods are varied
Common crops are sweet potatoes, boniato, and all kinds of leaves used for either salad or cooked greens. For instance, there are three varieties of edible hibiscus leaves, which can be used to make tea, salad, or a lemonade-type drink. Tropical fruits include starfruit; Barbados cherries; jackfruit; and red hog plum, a native Florida tree that yields abundant fruit every spring.
In summer, the forests are tended by managers and, sometimes, teachers who come on their off time to help clean and trim. In some forests, the soil is solarized – covered with clear tarps to “bake” the soil and kill the pests naturally.
Teachers also go to Johnson & Wales University in Miami, where chef-instructors give workshops on using the produce harvested from the forests.
No two gardens are alike, and each is designed with the idea of people moving through the space. Most everything is planted in curves, with few straight lines. There are mandalas, pathways, and picnic areas set up among the plants.
“I see myself as an artist, not as a farmer or a project manager,” Recinos explained. “When I install a food forest, I see them as works of art. The land is the canvas; the plants and mulch are the medium.”
Program Manager Debi LaBelle, who is also a trained chef, has been involved for two years. She has been working with cafeteria managers to integrate the food they grow into what is prepared for the students, and creating an official written procedure for that process. They’ve kept track at 25 schools, and garden produce has been used over 600 times in one year.
“I love it when you see a child’s eyes pop open as they pull up a carrot out of the ground,” says LaBelle. “Kids are more willing to eat something when they grew it.”
LaBelle talks to kids about nutrition, and then to the parents who insist their kids don’t eat greens. She then gets a kick out of taking them to the garden, where their progeny are eating leaves right off the trees.