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From Plant to Plate, an Education in Food

Published Dec 23, 2021

Ocean View High School, a G3 Recipient

Rochelle Van Der Merwe, the culinary teacher at Ocean View High School, brings her good-humored personality into the classroom every day. One of Gardyn’s G3 Initiative recipients, the school is located in Huntington Beach, California in an area with a high population of homeless and very low-income students. About an hour south of Los Angeles, it’s a tough spot to eat healthy on a budget. Families buy what they can afford, and access to affordable and nutritious produce is few and far between. Many of Rochelle’s students have parents who work long hours. Alone in the evenings, the students are responsible for making their own meals. 

Teenager looking at a Gardyn

Rochelle, or “Chef Roe,” as her students call her, applied to the G3 program after falling in love with her own Gardyn. Believing hydroponics to be “the future of our food,” she wanted to share the experience with her students and expose them to new plants, cuisines, and ideas.  

Besides focusing on our food systems, the Gardyns introduce fresh, nutritious produce, plants the students have never seen before, and tastes they’ve never experienced. Fresh herbs, not previously available for budgetary reasons, are now a part of the curriculum. Looking at dried and fresh versions, side-by-side gets students thinking about what they eat. Colorful varieties challenge existing perceptions. Full of flavor and nutrition, it’s a whole new way of eating, and one a lot more delicious than the bland diet most are used to. 

Rochelle teaches teenagers, making for a funny combination of eager interest and a “too cool for school” attitude. When the Gardyns first arrived, the students acted nonchalantly but couldn’t help stealing glances at the mysterious new systems. Once the plants began growing, their interest boomed. “The amount of food and speed of the Gardyns fascinates them,” she says. Excited shouts of “There’s stuff starting to grow here, that was fast!” ring out. The students regularly wander over to observe and see how things are growing, becoming more and more invested. 

Showing how Gardyn is used in the classroom

In these classes, students learn how to cook for themselves. It’s a skill you don’t find on many high school curriculums and one that empowers and gives a sense of pride. It’s also an act of self-care. Learning to enjoy the process, noticing red streaks in a shiny leaf of lettuce, and falling into the meditative act provides a soothing and creative outlet. It also leads to a more balanced and healthy lifestyle. 

When it comes time to harvest, they love to snip away and can even be found nibbling leaves in secret. The time and care they spend nurturing these plants breeds a commitment that carries through to the final dish. “The kids will get really into it. When eating what they’ve made, they’ll shout out, “This is so good. I think I can taste the mustard in there!” “I can’t wait for the purple basil to show up,” Rochelle says, “It’s going to confuse the heck out of them.” She’ll hold up plants, have the students touch and smell, and ask them to guess what it is. “Thai Basil is always a really fascinating one.” 

So much of what Rochelle teaches is challenging what you think you know and encouraging students to imagine more. “You know how teachers give an assignment that’s not really about the assignment?” she says. She uses assignments as a vessel to think about the world beyond Huntington Beach. “The reason I like to introduce them to foods or cuisines that they’ve never had before is because I want to open their eyes to know that there is more to the world than what they know.” Wok Cooking is a great example. “Wok cooking is hot and fast. Think about why they would be cooking this way. It’s because they don’t have enough of a heat source to cook for long. They need to get it really hot and cook before their fuel burns out. That’s why you don’t see many baked goods from this part of the world. If I can say that to them, it starts them thinking critically.”

Image of a student's drawing about food waste

It’s also a lesson in food waste. With more than 50 students, food is bought in bulk. Compost bowls set out in the middle of the table illustrate how quickly waste stacks up. Rochelle makes a point of this in her lessons. Stock gets made from odds and ends that can’t be eaten, and every edible part of the ingredient gets used. At the end of the year, the waste in the compost bowl is dramatically reduced from where they started. “Just by doing that, they have already started, without realizing they’re doing it, thinking like that,” she says. This also gets students thinking about the effect on communities. Right now, they’re doing a sustainability project using Gardyn as an example. “Their project over the semester is to pick one part of the food system and save it,” says Rochelle. “You don’t have to start big. Start small. Start right here in Huntington Beach.”

When I asked Rochelle what she would want people to take away when reading this story, she told me, “Sometimes, I think, we forget that students are not exposed to all that we think they are. The hope is that by trying to expose the kids to new ingredients, new ideas, new ways of doing things, that it might inspire them to seek out experiences in life,” a sentiment I love, because it’s true. Food ripples outward in all directions. It connects us, creates bridges, makes us think bigger, and teaches us the value of what we eat. It’s a vessel to life’s bigger ideas. And that’s exactly what Rochelle is cleverly weaving into each lesson she teaches with her Gardyns.  

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