On February 6, more than 35 teachers and students from schools across Alameda County convened at Castlemont High School in East Oakland to learn more about the school's innovative approaches to environmental education.
Castlemont teacher Tim Bremner led an energetic tour of the campus while describing his vision for student engagement and leadership development through Castlemont's Sustainable Urban Design Academy (SUDA).
The tour started in the school cafeteria where Bremner was joined by OUSD's Nancy Deming. Together, they described efforts taking place across the district, and at Castlemont in particular to improve nutrition and food quality while also reducing waste.
OUSD is vigorously pursuing a strategy of returning to "cooking kitchens" where staff cook from scratch, rather than merely heating food. Kitchen galleys are equipped with recycling and food scrap bins to divert as much waste as possible.
SUDA students have worked with OUSD Nutrition Services to occasionally prepare recipies developed by students. "Our students work understand and implement USDA school lunch guidelines in the meals they help prepare. The project helps them learn about nutrition, organic produce, food safety and more. So far, we've been able to do this once per year, but I'd like to expand it to once per month," explained Bremner.
In the cafeteria itself, Bremner described the results of a waste audit conducted in partnership with EarthTeam. The audit inspired the school to find grant funding to pay student waste station monitors and develop alternatives to much of the plastic waste found in the trash.
According to Nancy Deming, "the district is moving away from single use plastic as much as possible. In the past every lunch was served with a "spork packet" whether a student needed it or not. Now, we've installed utensil and napkin dispensers so students can take only what they need. We've also eliminated bottled water and installed simple hydration stations with compostable paper cups." These changes helped the school eliminate the purchase and disposal of over 3,000 bottles of water per week.
After touring the cafeteria, Bremner led the group outside to the site of the weekly Farmer's Market. OUSD has a district-wide on-campus Farmer's Market program to bring nutrition to families at affordable prices. Castlemont hosts the only Market at a high school in the district. Two years ago, students led the effort to advocate for a Market at their school to meet nutrition needs while also providing a community building event.
Students have opportunities to work or volunteer in the market and have also worked with Rosa, the market manager to cook items like empanadas for sale at the market.
Next, the group moved to the school's organic garden which features dozens of planter boxes, student constructed cold-frame mini-green houses, chickens, worm bins, 3 bin compost systems and a compost tumbler. "Through our SUDA Works program, we employ students in sustainability jobs after school. It builds on a previous program called Green Pioneers," explained Bremner. "Students helped build the sheds and chicken coops. They helped to install the rain catchment system. And they help design and redesign the garden every year."
The garden is also supported by a range of organizations and individuals who volunteer and work at the garden to keep it running year round.
According to Bremner, the school is interested in expanding beyond a "learning garden" to design and install a one-acre commercial farm. Bremner led the group across campus to view the space set aside for the farm and orchard. Castlemont has already secured the fruit trees for the orchard and hopes to plant them in the next couple of weeks.
The penultimate stop on the tour took the group to the shuttered JROTC shooting range. Through a program Bremner is calling Guns to Gardens, students have begun working with Kijani Grows to design and install an indoor aquaponic gardening system. Fish tank waste water will be filtered through planter beds to grow high-quality organic produce year round. The filtered water is returned to the fish tanks where Bremner hopes to grow catfish or tilapia for protein. "Our hope is that we will be able to contract with a restaurant to provide their produce. We probably won't be able to produce commercial quantities of fish, but that resource would be valuable to our students and their families."
The tour ended back in Bremner's classroom where he provided an overview of the courses in SUDA and answered questions about the program. From across the county, students and teachers alike found inspiration in Castlemont's vision and work to date. The school is actively seeking volunteers to help with its many programs.