(I've just been going through some old files and photos. You'd be amazed at the number of posts that slip through the cracks. I'm going to try to post one a week. Here's the first.)
Long before Alice Waters introduced the concept of students growing their own food in Berkeley kids were putting hoe to soil at schools in the Philippines. School farms in the island nation go back at least to World War II. Many were, and still are, born of necessity. Others are started not only to feed kids but to teach them life skills and engender a respect for farming.
Didn't know about this? I'm not surprised. We wouldn't know about the Philippines' own 'edible schoolyards' either had we not stumbled upon the farm at Victoriano de Castro Elementary School in Santa Rita, Pampanga province while on assignment there in December 2007 for Saveur magazine.
We were in Santa Rita to observe the laborious, time-consuming process by which young rice is transformed into the Pampangan seasonal specialty duman.
On our way from the paddies from which the rice was harvested to the shed where it would be threshed, roasted, and pounded we passed a U-shaped school building whose entire center courtyard -- and all of the concrete planters fronting the classrooms -- was given over to vegetable beds. It wasn't yet 7:30 in the morning and in amongst the rows enthusiastically digging, weeding, watering, and harvesting were dozens of uniformed students.
V. de Costa's mini-farm occupies its entire courtyard
What a sight! And certainly not one we're familiar with from the United States. We entered the schoolyard, began nosing around, and were eventually introduced to Head Teacher Carazon Yaya and agriculture studies instructor Ergado Yaya, who were happy to show us around.
Concrete planters are also devoted to edible plants
V. de Castro was founded in 1959 and built on land donated by the owners of an agricultural bank in Santa Rita. At the time of our visit the school's farming program had already been in existence almost twenty years.
Even though Pampanga is a largely agricultural province (rice and sugar are the main cash crops) "many of our children here at the school do not come from farming families," Ms. Yaya told me. "But we want to be sure that they learn to respect the land and the farmers who work so hard to grow our food."
The school has a room dedicated to agriculture classes. Its rear window looks over rice paddies stretching to hills beyond. There, the kids learn the names of vegetables and grains and herbs, talk about rotation and fallowing and seasons and weather, and plan the next planting's crops.
All of the work on the V. de Castro mini-farm -- from preparing the land to washing the just-harvested vegetables -- is done by the students, except for school holidays when teachers and other community members may lend a hand.
The students do all the work on the farm, and take fresh produce home to their families as a reward
The kids' reward for all this hard work? A pleasant break from sedentary book work in the form of time spent outdoors engaged in physical activity. The pride in literally seeing seeds that they've sown bear fruit. The freshest possible produce to take home to their families.
And in December 2007 there was another possible reward in the offing: V. de Costa was up against two other schools in a competition for the Best Farm School in the Philippines (unfortunately we never learned whether or not V. de Costa claimed the prize).
We left the school with a gift: bunches of perky mustard leaves, long, skinny eggplants, shiny green bitter melons, and a few taut-skinned daikon radish.
The vegetables turned up later, as lunch.
Daikon radish and mustard were made into a piquant pork sinigang (sour soup), the bitter melon and eggplants were blanched and ready to dip into balo-balo (pungent fish fermented with rice -- an acquired taste but absolutely addictive once you're 'there'), and more mustard leaves were served fresh, for wrapping around more balo-balo and bits of crispy fried tilapia.
(This meal might serve as a rebuke to those who deride Filipino cuisine for its 'lack of vegetables'.)
In two weeks of over-the-top fantastic meals, most from the kitchen of a skilled Pampangan cook, this was among our memorable meals. Seeing V. de Costa's students diving so whole-heartedly into the work at hand certainly put a feel-good sheen on the vegetables that made up our lunch.
But there's no doubt that it was some of the most flavorful produce we've eaten anywhere, ever.
Victoriano de Costa Elementary School's students cum farmers in their 'fields'