At El Monte’s Arroyo High, garden program is about more than just plants

Not just for students, on the weekends, community members at large are invited to the school for composting workshops and other programs.

A growing program at Arroyo High School involves students getting their hands dirty in the sake of learning about agriculture, nutrition and the environment.

Each week, some 160 students at the El Monte high school tend to okra, lettuce, sugar cane and other organically grown veggies thanks to nonprofit ECo Urban Gardens. Some head outside as part of their culinary arts classes, while others get out their clippers and harvest as part of an after-school and weekend garden club.

On the weekends, community members at large are invited to the school for composting workshops and other programs.

Arroyo High School students planting

“We work directly with the culinary arts programs at the schools, so kids can learn to cook and eat in a healthier way,” said Elizabeth Christy, program coordinator at the nonprofit. “We’re trying to change the culture around food so that when they look at a piece of kale or a salad they don’t go ‘ew,’ and they actually want to eat it.”

Student from Arroyo High School tending the gardenFor the students and their schools, the Los Feliz-based ECo Urban Gardens provides its programs completely free of charge. Two of its largest supporters, City of Hope and Kaiser Permanente, back the program to combat the connection between obesity and chronic illnesses, like diabetes, later in life — learning to eat healthier now translates into fewer emergency room visits later in life, Christy said.

The nonprofit started working at Arroyo in 2016, the year after it was founded. It has since expanded to five schools and home-school sites serving 4,000 students, including Rosemead and Mountain View high schools.

Students harvest 2,500 pounds of organic produce annually across the school sites.

Student from Arroyo High School tending the garden

Christy said ECo Urban Gardens targets schools that might otherwise not have the funding to offer an agriculture component to their curriculum.

The program is expanding at Arroyo. School officials are working with the nonprofit to create a career technical education pathway — like woodshop or metalworking — that’s centered around the garden. The coursework could serve as a launchpad for a variety of careers, including agriculture, dietitian work, landscape design and more, Christy said.

Earlier this month, students and educators held a groundbreaking ceremony for a 2,400-square-foot greenhouse they hope will soon serve as the anchor of the technical pathway program. It will house aquaponics equipment, which combines raising fish alongside plants without soil and serve as the primary outdoor classroom and kitchen for the program.

“This pilot program at Arroyo High School will serve as model for other schools to follow,” said Marianne Zaugg, the nonprofit’s executive director.

But first, they’ll need to raise about $500,000 for construction, which Christy said she expects to take about a year.