Bauman College Programs

Author Topic: Congrats to Rivka Mason for her work bringing nutritious gardens to the East Bay  (Read 3136 times)

Offline Marlina E

  • Associate Director
  • Administrator
  • *****
  • Posts: 1812
    • Bauman College Online
From the SF Chronicle

Presented to Rivka Mason
Thanks to her, a green movement is taking root in Berkeley

Thirteen years ago, Rivka Mason, a teacher, nature lover and environmentalist, turned a vacant space in the playground at Malcolm X Elementary School in Berkeley into an organic garden. The beautiful 4,000-square-foot garden and ecology center is now used to teach students about nutrition, math, science, social studies, art and history.

"This is basically an outdoor classroom, where all the kids from kindergarten to fifth grade come out," Mason says. "The kids do all the work here. They plant, they shovel, they dig, they water, they weed and they eat. We have a butterfly habitat and we have composts for all of our food scraps. After a few months it breaks down and turns into really nice soil."

On a cool weekday afternoon, children play in the playground while Mason gives a tour of the garden. The neighborhood cat scurries in and out in search of mice.

"We have a lot of crops,'' she says. "We just finished harvesting our fava beans. The fava brings a lot of aphids, which draw the ladybugs. The kids love looking at the whole cycle of one insect."

For Mason, whose position is funded through the California Nutrition Network, there's nothing better than seeing children become enthusiastic vegetable eaters after working in the garden. Her students have made potato salad in the garden and harvested raw juice from apples. One of her students, now in middle school, came up with the idea for a vegetarian delight called a "weedo" -- fresh collard greens, kale, lettuce, spinach, edible flowers and sweet fennel, with sour sorrel, spicy mint and green onion for flavor.

"I have a class that starts at 8:30 in the morning," Mason says. "I try to feed the kids in the morning, because a lot of times when I'm working in the garden with them and they're eating something, I ask how many of them ate breakfast. Five out of 10 kids don't eat breakfast, most often because they're in a rush. The weedo might be their first meal of the day."

Recently, Mason's students made Mother's Day cards using pressed wildflowers they had grown in the Malcolm X Garden.

"We do that every year for all of the kids," Mason says. "If they don't have mothers, we talk about guardians and women in their lives who take care of them and whom they love. A lot of these kids do not have a two-parent household. This is South Berkeley/North Oakland. It's a very diverse population with many different family dynamics."

Mason gives away strawberry plants every year in honor of Cesar Chavez, who fought for the rights of farmworkers.

"We talk about the farmworkers and who brings in our food, and it gives them respect for the whole cycle of the consumer/buyer, seller and the farmworker," she says. "Having the garden exposed to kids who may not know about where their food comes from gives them a sense of wonderment, and exposure and a feeling of connection to their food, which is what they're so far removed from. From that, they learn about healthier food choices."

Although her roots and most of her family are in Israel, Mason was raised in Los Angeles. She doesn't have a college degree in nutrition or botany, but she's been interested in nature all of her life and worked on a kibbutz in Israel.

"I lived on a kibbutz in Israel when I was 13 years old," she says. "It made a huge impact on me -- seeing how an agriculture community sustained itself. We woke at dawn, went to the main communal dining room, where everyone ate together. We had a warm drink and headed out to the fields. Each kibbutz grew something different. The one I was on had olive, orange, banana and apple groves.

"We worked for a couple hours, then came in and had breakfast. We then went back to the fields until lunch, when we took a three-hour break during the heat of the day, then back to work from 4 to 6 p.m., then dinner. I worked hard and remembered loving it -- being with people from all over the world working outdoors talking, telling stories and working the land."

For Mason and the California Nutrition Network, fighting childhood obesity is a major concern. Mason believes, as studies have shown, that if students are properly nourished, their academic performance improves.

"There are a lot of kids who are obese who have diabetes now," she says. "Children who are obese tend to have a higher risk of diabetes. It's called di-obesity now because it's so rampant in young people because of the unhealthy food that's out there."

Mason also instructs teachers on how to start school gardens. Through the UC Botanical Garden and the Watershed Project, organizations are helping teachers establish gardening programs throughout the Bay Area.

"It's blooming; it's not just Berkeley," she says. "Gardens in the schools are the underground revolution now. It's crucial. A lot of the teachers are seeing that they can teach anything out in the garden -- math, science, social studies, language arts and art.

"I feel like I have the best job in the world. Working outdoors with kids in a garden -- they are so enthusiastic. When I come into the classroom and they see me, they say, 'Gardening!' They look forward to coming out here. They get good nutrition and they get to be outdoors. It clears their head."

For more about the Malcolm X Garden, go to
BA Environmental Studies UCSB
Nutrition Consultant