Cambrian: Opinion

Organic garden benefits Coast Union students in class and cafeteria

Coast student Cammie Tatham was expected to show her heifer, right, and steer at the California Mid-State Fair.
Coast student Cammie Tatham was expected to show her heifer, right, and steer at the California Mid-State Fair. Special to The Cambrian

When school opens this fall at Coast Union, the salads served in the cafeteria will be made — as always — using fresh lettuce. But instead of being transported using fossil fuel from a store or farm somewhere in the distance, lettuce will travel about 80 yards via foot power from the school’s newly revitalized organic garden.

Perhaps as early as this winter, students will also be dining on fresh tomatoes, onions, herbs, romaine, kale and zucchini — all grown in the outdoor classroom/garden carved out of a long-untended plot of land on campus by David Bidwell, Coast’s lead maintenance staffer, with help from students. 

It’s part of the dramatic agricultural renaissance — a step toward sustainable food production — at Coast Union. The garden, the retooled greenhouse and the barn, the sheds, along with heifers, pigs — and soon-to-come chickens and maybe goats — result in part from the Coast Unified School District’s strategy to teach students usable, practical skills along with college preparatory studies at the high school. 

“Kids want to know other stuff” besides traditional studies, Bidwell explained as he gave me a tour of the organic garden. “This outdoor classroom (the greenhouse and garden) is used by the ornamental horticulture class and the agriculture science class.” 

Plying his noted welding skills — and establishing a mentoring program allowing him to teach interested students how to weld in the process — Bidwell plans to transform the old “jungle gym” from the Grammar School into a chicken coop this fall.

The garden soil is fortified with what Bidwell calls “super fertilizer,” that is produced on-site with a “worm tea brewer,” which combines worm castings, water, molasses, kelp and fish emulsion. 

That combination (strong organic fertilizer and richly upgraded soil) will, in time, produce consistent supplies of fresh greens for the cafeteria, much to the delight of Cindy Gustafson, food service lead for Coast Union.

In her 21 years in the Coast Union cafeteria, Gustafson has never had the opportunity to serve fresh produce from the high school’s long-neglected garden. She looks forward to a harvest of a variety of greens, understanding there is no guarantee “of fresh produce all the time, but you can see we have made huge headway towards producing our own vegetables.

“David has created a whole new energy; he is making things happen,” Gustafson said. “The other teachers involved in the garden and agriculture are realizing that David is serious. From the worm tea brewer to the compostable cafeteria waste we send out to the compost, we’re really trying to come full circle.” 

Gustafson is thrilled that the cafeteria has strong support from the students and teachers working on the organic garden; it’s been her vision for 20 years, she said. She brought worms from her garden, and Bidwell also contributed worms, though, more worm castings are needed.

“It’s starting,” Gustafson said. “It will take time to get it up to when we can say we are completely sustainable because we have enough worms working for us and we have enough compost working for us. It’s happening. I can see it.”

What is emerging in this agricultural renaissance “makes total sense to me,” Gustafson said in a phone interview. “It’s just ridiculous that we haven’t been utilizing this beautiful land that we have and the water that we have. How many schools have their own well?”

Gustafson, who works at the San Simeon State Park Campground during the summer, asserts that if the cafeteria begins “serving food that is really good and tasty — which is why I want to have herbs — then with more participation maybe the kids won’t need to go off campus for lunch, because our food tastes good.” 

Bidwell has become a “frontrunner for getting stuff done and getting the district to help us with new facilities,” said Coast Union teacher Darcy Dobrec, who has a bachelor’s in animal science and a master’s in agricultural education. 

Students from Dobrec’s agricultural mechanics and horticulture classes gave Bidwell plenty of assistance in putting new planter beds in the garden, putting chips in the walkways and planting many of the vegetables now thriving in the garden. 

Also, students from Dobrec’s agricultural mechanics class helped Bidwell build the new hog barn, “so it’s pretty cool that the kids had a big hand in it,” Dobrec said.

“I think it’s really great that kids are involved who have never been around a real animal and never had grown anything in a garden.”

Dobrec’s goal to “become more self-sufficient” merges seamlessly with the vision articulated by Bidwell, Gustafson and recently energized students. The agriculture teacher (who serves as ASB advisor) also envisions planting hay and possibly having a pumpkin patch in the fall on the 2-acre field the district owns below the garden and animal projects. 

“My dream is to raise animals not just for the fair, but for the school,” Dobrec explained in a phone interview. “We can have chickens so we have fresh eggs in the cafeteria. And we would love to be able to go down to farmers market and sell ‘Coast Union Fresh Eggs.’ It will be such a good thing for these kids to put their experiences and job training on their résumés.” 

In addition to the organic garden, the school’s emergence into an agricultural learning program includes a reconditioned barn, corrals and a new steel roof over the cow’s corral, a stone’s throw from the garden. The next Pacing Through the Pines will feature Coast Union students’ successful projects (raising pigs and cows), and also will delve into the history of Coast Union’s agricultural roots.