Guest Blogger: Eating Rules visits Olivewood Gardens

Andrew Wilder is a healthy foodie who thinks Eating Rules! He believes that although health and nutrition information is complicated, eating healthful, delicious food doesn’t have to be.
Recently I had a unique opportunity to visit the Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center, an urban, organic garden in National City, California, just south of San Diego.
Olivewood Gardens’ mission is to educate students, teachers, families, and volunteers to be healthy and active citizens. It is a destination for children from the surrounding urban community to explore connections between plants and history, science, art, literature, math, and nutrition, where learning is centered within the context of an organic garden. Organic produce is grown and harvested for nutrition classes, cooking demonstrations, and workshops.
I caught up with Amy Carstensen, the Executive Director, at her home in San Diego. It was lunchtime for her two young boys, and they had in front of them vegetable soup, sugar snap peas, and peanut butter sandwiches (sans jelly) on whole wheat bread. Amy asked them, “Does our food come from the farm or the factory?” Both enthusiastically replied “Farm!”  (Lest you fear that Amy is depriving the boys of any junk-food joy in their formative years, yes, they went trick-or-treating and yes, they have an occasional factory-produced snack.)
Once the boys had finished lunch, we headed south to the Learning Center, which is perched on a hill at the end of an unassuming residential street. A bright-yellow, impossibly-quaint Victorian manor serves as the centerpiece of this seven-acre property, surrounded by gardens, lush grass, a chicken coop, and a few stately palm trees to remind us we’re in Southern California.
Their operation is relatively new — just a couple of years in the making. The home, originally built in 1896, was purchased ninety years later by Wal-Mart heirs John and Christy Walton, who created an organic garden there to help their son successfully defeat cancer with a nutritious, vegetable-based diet.
In 2006 the Waltons donated the property to the International Community Foundation, with the request that they keep and maintain the garden. Through a serendipitous series of events (both good and bad), the ICF was able to expand it into a flourishing program.
On one side of the house is a half-acre demonstration garden, showcasing what people could do in their own backyards or patios: Dozens of plants in above-ground planter boxes, rows of tomatoes, a flower tunnel, a “pizza garden” (all the ingredients you need for pizza toppings, in the shape of pie slices), and even an unassuming, un-oderous compost pile.
On the other side, a gently-sloping hillside presents row upon row of vegetables.  My favorite?  The line of Brussels sprouts (which I had never actually seen growing before) — delightfully Seussian! A fruit orchard is in the works, too.
They also have a chicken coop, of course, with a flock of eighteen ladies and a handsome rooster, appropriately named Oliver.
Amy then took me into their demonstration kitchen. The home’s original kitchen is just large enough for ten kids to gather ’round and learn how to make Pumpkin Lasagna with Swiss Chard.
Wait, what? Fifth graders are making Pumpkin Lasagna with Swiss Chard? With a little help from the adults, yes. More importantly, they’re eating it — and wanting more.  And that just happened to be the most recent presentation in the kitchen (apparently their pumpkin patch was prolific this year). 
With the help of more than 60 chefs volunteering their time and expertise in both in the garden and the kitchen, along with many other volunteers, Olivewood Gardens has already served over 2,000 people in their community.
This isn’t just a one-time field trip for the kids, either. They visit four times a year, so they build a relationship with this place and with the food that they are growing, harvesting, and eating.
As a former teacher, Amy understands the requirements of the education system (curriculum! testing!), so she’s been sure their program fits directly into the grade-specific curriculums. 
Before their visit to the gardens, Amy and her crew offer a science-based, in-class lesson for the kids. During their visit, a class will be split into three groups of ten, and over the course of their two-hour field trip will spend time both in the garden — getting their hands dirty, planting and harvesting — and in the kitchen.  They make sure that every kid goes home with a recipe, too.
Near the end of my visit, I asked Amy about school gardens. Although she’s supportive, of course, she pointed out a big logistical problem — they are usually started by a dedicated teacher or parent, and when that person moves on, the school is likely to end up with a brown field if no one new steps up.  The advantage of Olivewood Gardens — and others like it — is that it is its own entity, and will last beyond just the one volunteer’s contribution.
Before we parted ways, I asked Amy for a call to action. First, she said that we need to focus on “doing better,” not necessarily “best.”  (A philosophy I frequently espouse on my own site.)  She also suggested that people create a “salad club” at their work or school. Once or twice a week, try having a communal salad day — everyone brings in some fresh, salad ingredients, and you make a huge salad that you all share.
Perhaps most importantly, parents must go to their kids’ schools and see what’s really happening in the cafeteria.  Food isn’t always what it seems (good or bad), and you can’t really tell from the menu what is really on offer.  The bottom line?  Parents need to be active and involved.
What I love most about Olivewood Gardens is its optimism. The historic house, the well-kept and flourishing gardens, and the entire community are all working to help kids understand where their food comes, and why fresh, wholesome food is so wonderful.
Olivewood Gardens is funded by grants, corporations, and personal donations. To learn more, please visit the Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center website, become a fan on their Facebook page, and please consider making a donation to support their important work.
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10 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Eating Rules visits Olivewood Gardens

  1. What an inspiring place for kids and adults to learn firsthand about where food is 'born' .. Lovely post!

  2. Love the recycled tire planter! Sometimes I wish we had southern California's idyllic 12-mo. growing climate here in New England.

  3. This is so great! What an impact these field trips can have on these kids – especially with multiple visits throughout the year. There is so much learning through the world of cooking and food — science, math, history, English can all be woven together. My daughter is taking a Life Skills class this year (really just cooking) and what a difference it has already made in her interest in the kitchen and her knowledge of food in terms of cooking it and its nutritional value.

  4. Is there any way that we could get the recipe for the pumpkin and swiss chard lasagna? I never would have thought of combining three of my favorite foods into one dish, but I doubt it can be anything but awesome!

  5. Melly – You just made me grin from ear to ear. I'll see if I can track down the recipe for ya.

  6. Mrs. Q please take down the last recipe and replace with this one. Thank you.

    Updated Recipe

    Pumpkin Lasagna with Swiss Chard
    For filling

    1 large onion, chopped
    3 tablespoons unsalted butter
    3 lb pumpkin, roasted and mashed
    1 teaspoon minced garlic
    1 teaspoon salt
    1/4 teaspoon white pepper
    2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
    4 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
    1 cup walnuts, loose skins rubbed off with a kitchen towel, and coarsely chopped
    For sauce
    1 teaspoon minced garlic
    3 tablespoons unsalted butter
    5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
    5 cups milk
    1 bay leaf (not California)
    1 teaspoon salt
    1/8 teaspoon white pepper
    For assembling lasagna
    1 c whole milk ricotta cheese
    2 eggs, whisked
    1 lb swiss chard, stems removed, chopped and sauteed, drained and pureed
    1/2 lb fresh mozzarella, coarsely grated (2 cups)
    1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (3 oz)
    12 (7- by 3 1/2-inch) sheets par boiled lasagna noodles (1/2 lb)

    Make filling:
    Cook onion and sage in butter in a deep 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, salt, and white pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, Remove from heat and stir in pumpkin, parsley and nuts. Cool filling.
    Make sauce while pumpkin cooks:
    Cook garlic in butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderately low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Whisk in flour and cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes. Add milk in a stream, whisking. Add bay leaf and bring to a boil, whisking constantly, then reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, 10 minutes. Whisk in salt and white pepper and remove from heat. Discard bay leaf. (Cover surface of sauce with wax paper if not using immediately.)
    Assemble lasagna:
    Preheat oven to 425°F. Combine ricotta and eggs with pureed swiss chard. Toss cheeses together and mix half into ricotta. Spread 1/2 cup sauce in a buttered 13- by 9- by 2-inch glass baking dish (or other shallow 3-quart baking dish) and cover with 3 pasta sheets, leaving spaces between sheets. Spread with 2/3 cup sauce and one third of filling, then heaping 1/2 cup ricotta cheese mixture. Repeat layering 2 more times, beginning with pasta sheets and ending with cheese. Top with remaining 3 pasta sheets, remaining sauce, and remaining mozzarella and parmesan cheese.
    Tightly cover baking dish with buttered foil and bake lasagna in middle of oven 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake until golden and bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes more. Let lasagna stand 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

    About the Chef
    Chef Julie Frans has been working as a personal and private chef since 2001, first traveling the world cooking aboard private and charter yachts for several years after graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 2000. She returned to her home town of San Diego in 2005 to develop Dining Details.
    Dining Details quickly grew to include personal chef services, catering, and cooking lessons. The company specializes in providing culinary experiences, using fresh, locally farm-grown ingredients, and as many organic products as possible.
    Dining Details expanded in 2009 to offer quality food to children through "Chickpeas, Quality Food For Growing Bodies." Chickpeas provides school lunches and healthy family dinners, school assemblies and lectures, as well as public school consultation.
    Julie's mission and passion is to bring "real" food back into the lives of everyone she meets, encouraging people to live better by eating better.

  7. I'm going to go off topic, but I was wondering what you think about couple of the things. Have you seen 'Waiting for Superman" or "School Pride"? I'm going to get a degree in Social Work and we discuss similar issues in class, how budgets are cut and how it affects school children. I didn't go to elementary school or high school in the US, but I understand some of the issues perfectly. However I do have classmates who come from poor neighborhoods and they can comment on it from their personal perspective. I think it is amazing what "School Pride" does. It's a shame they can't help everybody. The schools are in terrible condition and somebody should be embarrassed they let it happen. It seems in some cases there are certain people responsible for it. I'm surprised that some of these schools have good records and students do really good, yet nobody finds it necessary to invest any money to help them.

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