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Kale-Loving Inner-City Teens? They Dig It

At a middle school in South Los Angeles, health class involves growing bok choy and jalapeños — and changing the way students eat.

Sylvia Mazariego is a health teacher at John Muir Middle School in Los Angeles. She holds an associate's degree from Marymount California University, a bachelor's from Cal State, Long Beach and a master's from the University of Phoenix. She is now working toward administrative credentials at California, Irvine. Here she is in the school garden with students.
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Sylvia Mazariego
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Sylvia Mazariego
May 6, 2014, 8:46 a.m.

Sylvia Maz­ariego is a 46-year-old health teach­er at a middle school in South Los Angeles, just to the west of In­ter­state 110. It’s a low-in­come part of the cent­ral city where she’s helped build a 20-by-20 foot plant bed to ad­dress health dis­par­it­ies among her stu­dents, who are pre­dom­in­antly His­pan­ic and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an.

Al­though no garden­er her­self un­til now, Maz­ariego has in­cor­por­ated the Amer­ic­an Heart As­so­ci­ations’ Teach­ing Gar­dens pro­gram in­to her Muir Middle School cur­riculum, a cre­at­ive ap­proach to ad­dress part of the school’s mis­sion to pre­pare stu­dents to “de­vel­op the know­ledge and habits re­quired to be healthy and suc­cess­ful in the 21st cen­tury.” The AHA has 240 Teach­ing Gar­dens across the na­tion, with plans to ex­pand to 300 later this year.

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

We are in part­ner­ship with LA’s Prom­ise. They said, “Since you teach health, the Amer­ic­an Heart As­so­ci­ation has a plan to in­cor­por­ate teach­ing gar­dens in­to health courses.” The idea was to use it to en­cour­age healthy eat­ing, and so­cial and men­tal health, and so that is how it came about. I was told they come in and provide the beds, the seeds, the soil, and all I had to do was agree to teach some of the Amer­ic­an Heart As­so­ci­ation les­sons in my cur­riculum. So I tweaked them a little and in­cor­por­ated them. 

My stu­dents see me drink­ing my kale juice every day. They say, “What is that?” And I say, “You’re go­ing to taste it.” Then they take my class, learn to garden, and then they start to carry it in their little bottles.

I only teach sev­enth-graders. Every peri­od is around 50 minutes, and I have eight classes, so about 200 stu­dents will be in the garden once a week. They work with me year round. Whatever’s in sea­son — fruits, ve­get­ables, and herbs — they plant it, they grow it. It’s a neigh­bor­hood where there’s a lot of things go­ing on, so we’re work­ing on their so­cial and men­tal health, get­ting to know each oth­er and work­ing to­geth­er. They learn how to grow it and how to use it loc­ally. They’ll do a healthy salad, and in­vite the com­munity or par­ents to do some tast­ings.

The stu­dents grow kale — curly and di­no­saur — basil, thyme, lettuce, to­ma­toes, straw­ber­ries, cil­antro, jalapenos, gar­lic, ar­tichokes, bok choy. They have a fig tree, and har­vest that, and they had an apple tree and guava trees around the school already. We’re ex­pand­ing to a new place with more space to put in corn, pota­toes, and car­rots — pump­kins and wa­ter­mel­ons, too.

I can see they’re chan­ging their di­ets and health. They’re ex­cited. They come and say, “Mrs. M, can I take kale leaves so I can make juice at home so my mom can try it?” I say, “Sure, you don’t even have to ask.” They take it home to share, and it makes me happy. When they take it home, they say, “We did it at home, and my mom and sis­ter tried it and they liked it.” It makes me proud, be­cause I can see their par­ents are learn­ing. I can see that their diet is chan­ging. I used to see them eat­ing Chee­tos and all the junk food, but after they’ve had my class they’ll show up now car­ry­ing this [school-grown pro­duce] as a snack. 

Some Muir stu­dents who grow pro­duce in Sylvia Maz­ariego’s health class take it home to eat. (Cour­tesy Photo)

I have no garden­ing skills. I’m learn­ing to love it with the stu­dents. And I have someone to work with me, Maya [ Yaniv-Lev­in­boim, from LA’s Prom­ise] , who comes in the first and second class and helps with whatever garden­ing skills I need. I learn from her and ap­ply it to my oth­er classes.

At the end of the term, I ask them, “What is one thing you really like about health class?” And every­one says, “The garden, the garden, the garden!” I’ll hear that they’ve star­ted to do this with their mom. It’s a pretty urb­an neigh­bor­hood, so I teach them how to do it in small garden beds and con­tain­er garden­ing at home.

I’ve star­ted a garden at my home, cre­ated the beds just like at school. Now my hus­band helps take care of it. He loves to­ma­toes, and he and my little boys, 8 and 9, and they go out there and wa­ter and tend to the garden.

There are hardly any health teach­ers in the dis­trict, but my po­s­i­tion was something spe­cial. Health is an elect­ive at oth­er schools, but it’s part of our school’s mis­sion state­ment. My class is about everything — about obesity, so­cial health, men­tal health. The stu­dents love it. I love it. They’re really real­iz­ing it’s im­port­ant to take care of their health.

Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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