When I was new to D.C., many people gave me the same advice, "Avoid Anacostia."
Separated from the District's heart by the Anacostia River, the southeast swath of the city loosely known as Anacostia has long been associated with high rates of violent crime and poverty.
But after finally venturing across the river this week, I associate it instead with a beautiful new organic garden—complete with fruit trees, 18 raised vegetable beds, a greenhouse and rainwater catchment—thriving in a public schoolyard.
The Great Garden of Anacostia, as the students had dubbed it, was visible through a high metal fence as soon as I emerged from the metro station. Late-season vegetables, herbs and fledgling berry bushes were sunbathing in rectangular beds of reclaimed wood, filling what was once a forlorn field wedged between the street, Thurgood Marshall Academy and Savoy Elementary School. Two of the beds are raised high enough to tend from a wheelchair, and a special glue on the gravel path has made the surface almost as smooth as pavement, yet still porous.
It's been attracting a lot of attention.
"Most people, they walk by and see us working out here and say, 'What are you doing in all that dirt?!'" said Kijon James, a 15-year-old sophomore at Thurgood Marshall. "But I like that's it's organic. It's more healthy, and it's helping the environment."
I took a tour with Sean Miller and Josh Volinsky of the Earth Day Network, which has funded and coordinated the creation of gardens of 100 schools nationwide so far as part of its Green Schools initiative. The group typically spends about $3,000 to $5,000 per garden, but invested closer to $15,000 in this one because it's meant as a "showcase," Miller explained.
"We wanted to shine a light on D.C. because they've passed this landmark legislation, providing some of the most seminal leadership on healthy schools in the country," he said, referring to the Healthy Schools Act, which seeks to address obesity and improve children's health by revamping school meal programs, setting exercise goals, and establishing school gardens and other environmental programs.
"This should be commonplace," Miller added, noting that he's seen smaller, simpler gardens built for only a few hundred dollars with donated materials. He estimated that there are about 2,000 school gardens nationwide right now, including 70 in the district, which has a Schoolyard Greening program.
"Many kids don't know where their food comes from, and this can introduce them to new vegetables they wouldn't try if they didn't grow it themselves," said Schoolyard Greening's Gilda Allen. "And getting out in a garden, reconnecting with nature, can really benefit kids—it can even help hyperactive kids calm down."
Students from Thurgood and Savoy built the garden over the summer, with help from community volunteers, Schoolyard Greening, the D.C. Farm to School Network and other groups. Throughout the school year, students will water, weed and tend the plants, using the greenhouse to nurture seedlings through the winter.
The hands-on involvement means the students "take the garden very personally," says Imani Scriber, 16, a Thurgood sophomore who proudly showed me the beds she helped plant as part of an environmental science class.
"We've got lettuce, cabbage, basil, chives, parsley, white raspberries... The blueberry bushes were the hardest because we had to dig deep, and we ran into bricks and stuff from the old houses that used to be here," Scriber said. "Our goal is to eat our own products. We're going to cook them in class...I'm very eager to see how everything comes out. And there are things in this garden I've never even eaten before, like squash."
As we talked, an orange butterfly fluttered among the plants a few feet away.
"Look at that monarch!" Scriber exclaimed. "We've seen bugs we've never seen before—we actually saw a bumblebee. A real, fuzzy, distinctly black-and-yellow bumblebee!"
Meanwhile, her classmate, Kijon James, couldn't stop staring at the fruit trees.
"I've never seen an apple tree around here before, so that's exciting," he said. "Of course, I'll be in college by the time it grows an apple, but I'll come back and see it."
Later that day, in the gymnasium, White House assistant chef Sam Kass and pastry chef Bill Yosses were the celebrity guests at an event celebrating D.C. Farm to School Week and D.C. School Garden Week (which also happen to coincide with National School Lunch Week). If Kass' random sampling of the students' views on vegetables was representative, there's still work to be done.
"What's your favorite vegetable?" he asked the students.
"Broccoli!" shouted one, but another said she didn't have one.
"C'mon, you've gotta give me something," Kass said, holding the microphone in front of an elementary-aged girl. She made comical faces as he suggested a few vegetables.
"Okay, fine. Carrots. But I do like junk food," she informed him.
Well, it's a good start, anyway.