“This week I’m putting in carrots. And getting the compost tea system working,” Bill Palmisano, garden manager at Carpinteria High School’s new organic garden, tells a visitor.
He’s accomplished a great deal in the eight months he’s had the post.
“When I was interviewing, I didn’t expect to get the job,” he said. “There were 20 candidates, and even when it got down to the last three, they sent us home with an assignment. Which was essentially to lay out the whole garden. I was up until 4 in the morning.
“A couple days later, I got a call from (Carpinteria Unified School District Superintendent) Paul Cordeiro, and he asked what I thought of the job. I said it was a really cool job and I’d love to do it. He said, ‘Great, well it’s yours.’”
Palmisano has been executing his plan ever since.
The plan is confined to a rectangular plot that takes up a little less than an acre on campus.
“The fence was here, and the fruit trees, but otherwise it was in pretty poor shape,” Palmisano said. “We started with the irrigation and water systems. We put in a pressure line and a drip line. We have an injection system that lets us inject compost tea into the lines.” They can either feed the roots or coat the leaves.
Palmisano and his team started in the southeast corner of the plot, hand-digging one bed at a time. Adam Camaradella, the assistant garden manager, described the process: “You dig three shovel-widths out, two shovel-blades deep, and dump the soil to one side to make the raised beds. Then you fill in the area you dug out with compost and mulch.”
They progressed west one bed at a time.
A Carpinteria High student who “committed a few peccadilloes” was sent to the gardens to work, his time and toil the redress for the damages he caused. “He put in seven beds all by himself,” Camaradella recalled with some awe.
“His parents didn’t trust the district,” Palmisano said of the student. “They thought he was getting a raw deal. But he loved it out here and his parents ended up coming out here and spending an hour or more with him. By the end, they thought the district was doing the right thing. Now he has started his own garden at his girlfriend’s house.”
The student’s garden is just one example of how Palmisano’s small plot of land has tendrils that reach beyond the fence. The school’s horticulture class comes out every couple of days to work in the gardens. Veterinary science students wheel their stable sweepings up to the compost piles each day. Most important, the produce from the garden travels across campus to the cafeteria, where it appears in the lunches served each day, and into the culinary classrooms where students use it in their recipes.
Cordeiro see the tendrils reaching far beyond even these relationships.
“We ate our meals with our family every night,” he recalled of his childhood. “When we were done, our parents said, ‘Go outside and play.’ We were out there with our friends. We learned to get along, to play by the rules. We burned a zillion calories. Or at least the net calories burned were more than we took in.
“That’s the exception now. We rarely eat meals together if at all. We send our kids off to their tech babysitters, their computers and texting and Skype.
“We have to change what kids are eating. We have to get them back to true face-to-face social interaction.”
Cordeiro sees the school’s organic garden as a small, but pivotal, component in a much larger game plan. He is directly responsible for educating Carpinteria public school students between the ages of 3 — the district has three pre-schools — and 18. But the studies are clear. The earlier you start with children’s education and diet, the better their chances are of living a healthy life, completing high school and going on to college.
And, the children cannot be considered in separation from their families.
“If the family is strained, then the student is strained,” Cordeiro said.
“The food aspect, where we’re focusing (with the garden and culinary programs now) now, has to get pushed back under the umbrella of wellness.”
. . .
Recipe: Flavorful and Colorful Greens
» One tablespoon olive oil in a large fryer, low heat
» Three garlic cloves, sliced
» One bunch fresh Swiss chard, sliced
» One bunch fresh Rhubarb chard, sliced
» Cover until wilted
» Serve immediately with orange or lemon slices
. . .
The Carpinteria organic garden is partly funded through the s’Cool Food Initiative, an undertaking of the Santa Barbara-based Orfalea Foundation, which was created by Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea and his wife, Natalie. According to foundation vice president Catherine Brozowski, Natalie Orfalea is the driving force behind the organizations.
The foundation, in existence for eight years, started as a typical model for corporate philanthropy, providing seed money for organizations aligned with the Orfaleas’ values and visions. But 18 months ago, the foundation re-evaluated its approach. Foundation officials wanted to become more involved in shaping the strategies they were funding, get deeper into the programs and make them more effective.
The s’Cool Food Initiative was a direct result of that strategic shift. The program’s aim is to create a community of healthy Santa Barbara County children who make educated food choices throughout their lives.
Eric Cardenas, the Orfalea Foundation’s agriculture and infrastructure manager, acknowledges there are other farm-to-school programs and other school garden programs.
“What’s unique about us is that we do all of it at once,” he said. “Our mission is to collaborate with school districts and empower them to implement cook-from-scratch meal programs. We’re looking for sustainable and sustained programs.”
Cordeiro sees the integration across the community and spanning generations.
“This garden integrates our agricultural systems programs, our culinary programs, our cafeteria,” he said. “Orfalea helped us get gardens at our elementary schools. We just had the first farmers markets with produce from the schools.”
The initiative’s junior cook-ins are popular days across the district.
“They pick the food, they prepare it, they cook it,” Camaradella said of the students. “Stuff they’ve never seen or heard of. Stuff they would never try. But because they cooked it, they try it. They eat the whole thing. And they want more.”
Another program, the Culinary Boot Camp, pulls cooks from school cafeterias and retrains them in intensive week-long periods. They go in as cooks adept at opening cans and foil trays, and laying out prepared foods. They emerge as chefs, invested with responsibility for the students’ health and well-being, knowledgeable about local procurement, adept at preparing fresh foods, and with new equipment that enables them to meet the new demands.
“We have plans for a culinary kitchen to replace our old 1960s kitchen,” Cordeiro said of Carpinteria High, again viewing the facility as a point of leverage for influence that extends past traditional boundaries of school campuses and age groups. “Our own culinary program would be enhanced. But we can also offer adult classes there.
“Our families need to be retrained in nutritional eating. And we could use it to train other food service staff from other schools and institutions.”
Across town at the old Main School campus, another program is getting launched, also with assistance from the Orfalea Foundation. The Main Family Resource Center targets children in infancy for good nutrition and appropriate education. Following a model put in place in New York City by Harlem Children’s Zone president and CEO Geoffery Canada (who delivered the keynote speech at last week’s Partnership for Excellence program in Santa Barbara), the Carpinteria facility is developing a childhood and community support system that extends from infancy through the teen years.
Food and gardens remain an important cornerstone and Cordeiro hopes to develop community gardens at that campus to give families retrained in their new kitchens a place to grow fresh food.
. . .
Recipe: Colorful Spring Salad
» Four fresh beets, shredded
» Six fresh carrots, shredded
» Two to three bunches fresh lacinto or dinosaur kale, sliced
» Two tablespoons of olive oil
» Fresh-squeezed lemon or orange juice to taste
» Add citrus wedges for accent and flavoring
. . .
“The garden heals,” Palmisano said as he watched a class of 10 children and two teachers bending over a bed where sorrel mixes with spikes of kales and golden chard leaves. The children are from a Special Education classroom on campus and they’ve come to see the baby goats born in the livestock pens over the last two months.
Palmisano likes the relationship between the livestock and the garden.
We get the waste from the pens,” he said. “Several wheelbarrows a day.”
Compost is central to the garden’s development.
“When we came in, the soil was dead,” he continued. “You could dig a trench 120 feet long and not see a single worm. You’d hit big chunks of asphalt and concrete. The dirt was just gray. Totally denuded.”
The team obtains compost from a variety of sources. Grass cuttings from the grounds come in. Horse manure and stable sweepings are transported from a horse ranch on land the school leases out. “MarBorg has been great,” Palmisano said of the waste hauler. “They’ll bring us 40 yards of horse manure whenever we ask.”
The city of Carpinteria chips in chipped wood from local parks. Occasionally, local tree-trimming companies bring a load by. Greens and cuttings from the garden lace the piles.
The golden compost is brewed behind the shed. Paired together are a compost drum and worm bins. The compost drum is a 50-gallon green plastic barrel that rests on its side and is spun with a large handle like a bingo wheel.
“This cooks up our compost tea,” Camaradella said as he spun the drum and a dark mass hugged the bottom. “Compost tea and worm casings are the richest source of compost you can get.”
Next to the drum is a worm bin of Palmisano’s design. The bin is shallow, perhaps 10 inches, but wide and deep, four feet by eight.
“Watch the smell,” he warned. “Some people don’t like this.”
Camaradella opens half the bin, which is brim full of greens. The smell is robust and dark. The bottom of the bin is roped and supports cardboard boxes. Between the boxes, the worm casings fall to a flat platter between the legs of the bin below where they are harvested. They’re either used directly as soil amendments, or added to the tea.
“You don’t see a lot of worms in the bins yet — the weather is just warming up,” he said. “But dig around and you’ll find some very fat, very happy worms.
“That’s something I’ve learned in the last year,” Palmisano continued as he stood on the remains of the rocks and asphalt dug from the garden site, used now as filler for a drainage near the entry gate to keep trucks from getting mired when they deliver the compost.
“When you submit soils to most labs for analysis, you get a report back that tells you the mix of sand and silt and clay, the chemical and mineral makeup. But I’ve been reading about Elaine Ingham’s research — she worked for Monsanto and Novartis and then realized how ridiculous they were and she left and founded Soil Foodweb — but none of these usual measures really tell you what’s happening in the soil.
“It’s not the minerals. The soil is a living organism.”
Before he was hired by the Carpinteria school district, Palmisano was a landscaper, building gardens, installing irrigation lines, maintaining decorative plantings and he had a garden at home. When his daughter started kindergarten in 1994, they were one of the founding families at Santa Barbara Charter School. “I helped put in the first garden out there,” he said.
The Palmisanos later took an opening for their daughter at Open Alternative School, better known around town as OAS.
“They had a garden,” he said. “It was in boxes — I think people put gardens in boxes to keep pests out, gophers — and so I kind of sat back and watched how it went the first year. The next year I made a few suggestions, like let’s lose the boxes.”
The food traveled down the walkway to the kitchen. The children traveled the opposite direction to see the garden, hear about how it worked, and turn the soil and plant some plants. Raw carrots with the dirt wiped away found hungry mouths. Sugar snap peas disappeared.
Before long, Palmisano was being told by the staff that he should request funding from the other parents. He scoffed, but did so anyway. They gave him funds. After that, every year they voted him more money.
The OAS garden became an integral part of the community. Palmisano also substituted in the classrooms and became a benevolent and familiar face on the campus. But the garden was tiny, just 20 square yards of turned earth at one end of the campus behind the restrooms.
“When this position (for the Carpinteria garden) opened, they were looking for someone with five years experience running an organic farm,” he marveled. “I had never done that. I never expected to get hired.”
. . .
Recipe: Horse Manure Compost
» 40 yards fresh horse manure and stable sweepings
» 100 gallons of water
» Let sit. Should reach 150° in a few days
» Cook for 30 days
» Spread in the walkways between beds and as mulch over new plantings and beds
. . .
A student from Cindy Reeves’ class has split off to approach Camaradella. “Is there anything I can do?” he asks.
“You want to work?”
“Yeah, I want to work.”
“Alright, let’s go move some of this compost.”
Five minutes later, the teenager is shoveling compost into a blue wheelbarrow, trundling it across to newly laid out beds, and turning it on end to empty it. He returns and picks up the shovel. No one is helping him. No one is hovering, watching after his safety or worrying about his competence.
“Carpinteria had an interest in the program,” the Orfalea Foundation’s Cardenas recalled. “They had the site for the garden, they’re definitely ahead of the other programs.”
The s’Cool Food program is being implemented in the Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, Guadalupe and Lompoc school districts.
“We funded Carpinteria’s garden manager position for two years,” Cardenas said. “Then we put out the job opening, sat in on the interviews and got the field down to three candidates. We sent them home to come back with their design for the garden.
“The panel decided Bill was hands-down the best candidate. He’s got years of experience with a school garden.”
The relationship, however, is hands-off.
“He gives us a monthly report on the progress,” Cardenas said. “But since his hire, we’ve pretty much left it to the district’s discretion to implement.”
The district has left it to Palmisano.
“Bill is not only a great gardener,” Cordeiro said while watching him work, mulching newly planted fruit trees along the northern border of the plot. “He’s articulate and knowledgeable about what he’s doing. He can talk about how the beds are made, and why. Why we have all this compost around. The methods and need for aeration of the soil and water.
“People looked at this site before he started and said it couldn’t really be done. It was all backfill, full of asphalt and concrete, a hideous place that would need months of amendment.”
Cordeiro kicks at the edge of a raised bed newly planted with carrot starts, all the evidence that’s needed of Palmisano’s abilities.
The student stabs the shovel into the compost heap, returns the wheelbarrow to its position nearby, and rejoins his class. Camaradella is handing out sorrel leaves and snap peas. I take a carrot and wipe most of the dirt off.
— Noozhawk contributor David Petry is a local historian, author and photographer. Click here to read his blog, Decomposing Santa Barbara, which focuses on aspects of Santa Barbara history that are disappearing.