Kim Johnson Supports Schools Growing Food
Article from Santa Barbara Independent by Matt Kettmann
Explore Ecology’s Edible Education Symposium Honors UCSB Alum
Photo: Ryan Foley
Soon after graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Kim and Jack Johnson set a new mold for the music industry by using their success and influence to push for sustainability at concert venues and call attention to critical issues, meanwhile dedicating profits to earth-minded and social-justice causes.
One such cause is Explore Ecology, which, among other initiatives, manages campus gardens across Santa Barbara County. And this year, they’ve launched a Farm to Toast program, where children will learn how to grow, harvest, and mill wheat and then make bread at school.
The nonprofit is hosting the Santa Barbara Edible Education Symposium on October 11 and 12, offering farm tours on Friday and workshops and panel talks all day Saturday at La Cumbre Junior High. The event culminates in a Saturday night harvest dinner that will honor Kim Johnson with its first ever Edible Education Leadership Award. She recently answered a few of my questions about her support.
How did you choose to go all-in on this project? I have been a fan of Explore Ecology since I discovered Art From Scrap as an art student at UCSB over 25 years ago. Since then, I’ve watched them grow, adding more programs over the years, and my husband, Jack, and I have supported these programs through the Johnson Ohana Foundation for over a decade. When Explore Ecology jumped in to take over the management of school gardens across Santa Barbara County, it was in perfect alignment with what I had been doing in Hawai‘i through our Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation’s ʻĀINA in Schools program. Both programs connect kids to where their food comes from through school gardens, locally grown food in school meals, and nutrition education.
Tell us about the concept of “edible education” and why it’s important. On the surface, edible education is about growing food with kids so they can experience the entire process from seed to plate: planting a seed, watering it, watching it grow, harvesting, and then tasting it. My favorite thing is to see kids biting into a fresh green bean or tomato that they’ve helped to grow and loving it! Edible education generates excitement around fresh fruits and vegetables, which can evolve into healthier eating choices. But it’s more than that! The school garden is a living laboratory where every subject area can come to life and provide tangible experiences for students. You can learn so many things in a garden; it’s an amazing outdoor classroom.
When did you realize that there was a disconnect between today’s youth and where our food comes from? I think the disconnect began with my generation. I grew up as a child of the ’80s when TV dinners, packaged food, and sugary cereals were the norm for most households. As I got older, I realized that it’s typical for young people to think food comes from the grocery store, where produce is often packaged in plastic and shipped from far away.
My own agricultural literacy began here in Santa Barbara, where as a college student I worked at a local farm stand as well as at a small family-owned restaurant. These experiences opened my eyes to the amazing world of locally grown, seasonal produce, inspiring Jack and me to start our own garden at our Isla Vista rental. There is an incredible connection made when growing your own food, and for kids to have this opportunity starting at a young age is invaluable and will stay with them a lifetime.
Is this idea being expanded to other regions? California as a whole has a large number of long-standing farm-to-school and edible education organizations and programs and continues to grow each year. The edible education movement is spreading worldwide as more people become aware of the importance of school gardens and increasing students’ knowledge of food cultivation, cooking, and nutrition.
Edible education brings nature into the classroom and the classroom into nature! That’s why Jack and I appreciate the Explore Ecology School Garden Program, which reaches 14,000 students at 38 local schools. The Johnson Ohana Foundation supports similar programs around the region, including Food for Thought Ojai, and worldwide because all kids deserve to have access to healthy food. And what better way to do that than through a school garden?
Where do you see this going in the next 5-10 years? The future of edible education is in creating a localized closed loop, beneficial for students, the local food system, and the environment. Composting food waste on-site and using the final product as a soil amendment keeps waste out of the landfill and teaches students science, soil biology, and waste reduction. By utilizing local growers and producers, we reduce the overall negative impact that our food can have on the environment.
We hope that state and federal governments across the nation will recognize the benefits of farm-to-school programs and edible education on a broader scale and that every school will have funding to support these programs. Research shows that children who learn how to grow food get higher test scores in science, tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, and have a greater understanding of ecology.