Panetta visits school garden program in Watsonville
WATSONVILLE — Rep. Jimmy Panetta visited an elementary school in Watsonville to observe the impact of a school garden program designed to provide young children in resource challenged communities with fresh healthy food and knowledge about where it comes from.
Panetta toured MacQuiddy Elementary School on Wednesday, taking in the school’s recently installed garden on its grounds. The project aims to encourage the young students to eat healthy while learning lessons on a variety of subjects related to the environment and food production. Panetta also touted his office’s support of various federal programs that help school districts across the country buy fresh produce so young students with developing brains have access to quality nutrition while at school.
“It’s always important to see the children of the Central Coast benefiting from the best thing that we do here, which is agriculture,” Panetta said. “Here they can eat the items straight from the lands that many of their parents are working in.”
Panetta also said it’s an opportunity to promote healthy eating among the region’s youngest residents.
“Often there is a breakdown between the people who work in the fields and their access to fruits and vegetables,” Panetta said. “Programs like this not only help produce healthy and happy children but it’s great for the community as well.”
The school garden program at MacQuiddy is not only about providing a green space replete with fruit trees, fruits and vegetables along with ornamental varieties but also furnishing students with an outdoor classroom and an opportunity to teach children about science, health, food systems and more.
“We are layering the teaching of next generation science with environmental literacy, but this three-dimensional classroom also assists with English language literacy and food systems education,” said Don Burgett, executive director of Life Lab.
Life Lab is a nonprofit based in Santa Cruz County that runs various garden projects at schools, including five in Watsonville. Its garden project programs include teaching science, cooking, nutrition, gardening skills such as planting, care and harvesting to students in kindergarten up to fifth grade.
Along with partnering with Parajo Valley Unified School District, Life Lab also works with AmeriCorps — specifically the FoodCorps program — which is federally funded and provides young people just out of college to assist with programmatic execution, along with a host of other local organizations dedicated to providing healthy food and education to Watsonville’s children.
“Our service members dedicate a year of service,” said Jackie Hemann, the California program director for FoodCorps. “We focus on low-income and resource challenged communities where at least 50 percent of the population gets some form of lunch assistance.”
Hemann said she maintains a watchful eye on Washington D.C. as President Donald Trump’s latest budgets have called for the elimination of the FoodCorps program and House Republicans have recently pushed for drastic cuts to the type of programs that provide schools with funds to buy fresh produce.
Panetta said he opposed those cuts in the House and will continue to advocate for FoodCorps and other associated programs focused on healthy eating in schools.
“A number of programs were on the chopping block, but with the help of colleagues we were able forge a bipartisan agreement and do the right thing for this community,” Panetta said.
While some in Congress will continue to agitate for reduced spending, Panetta said he remains bullish on the long-term viability of the programs on display at MacQuiddy.
Panetta’s optimistic take on the program’s sustainability is positive news for Kathy Mitani, the vice-principal at MacQuiddy and one of the prime movers behind getting the garden established back in 2015.
“I think the kids come out here and learning about nutrition and other lessons is great,” she said, as she pointed to the sun-drenched garden with varieties of lettuce sprouting up in rows beside the fruit trees. “But I think the best thing is the opportunity for them to just be outside in this beautiful space.”