Mark McDermott

The garden, the circle, and the champion

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Isabella Jacobson, a Growing Great student at Meadows Elementary, joins executive director Jennifer Jovanovic, co-founder Peggy Curry, and Chef David Lefevre in preparations for the organization’s annual Farm to Table Benefit. Photo by Brad Jacobson

How Growing Great grew greater when a chef took up its cause —  teaching children about food

by Mark McDermott

A little girl wearing a ponytail and thick wire frame glasses reaches her hand into a garden box and with the help of a teacher grabs a radish by its stalk and pulls it out. She holds the radish in front of her, its dirt-encrusted roots dangling inches from her nose, and looks at the purplish vegetable with utter amazement.

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The girl, a special needs kindergartner at Maple Primary Center, has just taken part in a harvest for the first time in her young life. The school is in South Central Los Angeles, an area known for its rampant gang activity. The area is also what the United States Department of Agriculture defines as a “food desert,” meaning its residents have little access to fresh or whole foods. It’s easy to find fast food, burgers or fried chicken, but radishes are a true rarity, as is anything else unprocessed.

But there is hope in that radish. The girl is taking part in the Growing Great program, a non-profit that started 20 years ago in Manhattan Beach which teaches kids about food —  how to grow it, how to cook it, and the science and nutrition behind growing, cooking, and eating. The teacher helping her is a Growing Great food instructor.

“They don’t have an opportunity to experience any kind of garden space, so we create a situation for them where it’s not only a garden near where they can walk past, it’s their garden,” said Jennifer Jovanovic, executive director of Growing Great. “They plant the seeds, they harvest. We have little three-year-olds that are experiencing this, and they are reading stories sitting out in their garden, doing hands-on science projects out in the garden. And that kind of ownership, that ‘This is ours, we are not just in a cement covered inner-city environment but that this is ours, too.’ And that can be a garden block the size of a table that they harvest…They are having this hands-on experience with both the science and the [food] literacy, and they get to eat their experience.”

Researchers at Cornell University’s Food Lab estimate that the average American makes 226 decisions regarding food each day. If you live in a food desert, most of those decisions do not contribute positively to your health. But the kids at Maple are hardly alone in the barrenness of their food geography. A survey conducted by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy two years ago revealed that 7 percent of Americans believe that chocolate milk comes only from brown cows, 40 percent of California 4th, 5th, and 6th graders don’t know that hamburger comes from cows, orange juice is the nation’s most popular fruit, and french fries are its most popular vegetable. It is thus unsurprising that nearly one in five kids aged 2 to 19 in the United States is obese, while one in three American adults is obese and 71 percent are either overweight or obese, according to the Center for Disease Control.

When the little girl with the ponytail left her school, ready to go home and tell her mom about the miracle of the radish, she faced a landscape in which finding another healthy choice was a longshot.

“They walk out from grade school and there are people on the streets set up to sell them Cheetos and sodas,” Jovanovic said. “They are walking out with their Growing Great healthy foods, but that is what we have to counter. It’s not that they are like, ‘Oh, I have to have these Cheetos.’ It’s that marketing in those neighborhoods is just ridiculous.

“It’s not that they have to have junk food. That is not it at all. They love the food that they cook. It’s just a matter access.”

But once a child has harvested his or her own food, and perhaps helped prepare a meal for friends, will another seed have been planted? Growing Great believes so. The organization’s mission over the last six years has dramatically altered in order to plant those seeds not just in schools that can afford to pay for such programs, but in food deserts like South Central; 98 percent of the kids at Maple, for example, are from low-income families. Unlike Manhattan Beach, they don’t have farmers markets, nor access to a proliferation of high-end grocery stores. What farm-to-table dining exists in those areas is more likely to come from the kids at Maple than their neighborhood. In 2017, Growing Great began offering its programs free to such schools. The greater hope was that the kids in places like Maple Primary Center will be the ones planting the seeds towards a healthier future for all those around them.

Students at Maple Primary Center in Los Angeles learn about the nutritional value of fresh vegetables and fruits from a Growing Great instructor. Photo courtesy Growing Great

The fact that this hope exists at all is due to the involvement of one of the South Bay’s brightest culinary stars, Chef David Lefevre, who played a key role in bringing the farm-to-table food movement to greater local prominence eight years ago when he opened up MB Post in downtown Manhattan Beach. Growing Great at that time was already a vibrant organization, reaching over 8,000 kids a year, and at one point bringing the program to 77 schools nationwide. But one day six years ago, Lefevre received a visit from Peggy Curry, a co-founder of Growing Great and Manhattan Beach’s resident food fairy godmother.

Curry has an infectious passion for food education, and she had an idea: Growing Great’s annual fundraising dinner to that point had been at different supporters’ homes, and with the chef’s help, she wanted to grow it bigger and better.

Lefevre receives roughly 250 requests a year to do events, and does about 40. He knew immediately that Growing Great would become not only one of those events, but something particularly close to his heart.

“You can’t do it all,” Lefevre said. “You want to make sure, number one, that you are needed. Number two, that the time you put into it makes a difference. And number three, you want to do it with people who are very like-minded. And I knew that right away with Peggy.”

“One thing anybody who meets Peggy knows is that she’s very maternal,” Lefevre said. “I mean, she’s very loving, and you can just see how much she cares about the project. She will do what it takes to make sure not only are you doing something for a great cause, but that you are having a great time doing it.”

Thus was born Growing Great’s annual Farm to Table Benefit, which has taken place four out of the last five years at 72andSunny, Howard Hughes’ former office complex in Playa Vista, and where Lefevre has led a cadre of his fellow chefs to help create a culinary event that few who attend ever forget. The event, along with the arrival of Jovanovic as executive director five years ago, has so galvanized Growing Great that now reaches 15,000 kids annually, 65 percent of who are from low-income families and live in food deserts.

Lefevre said his involvement with Growing Great is one of the most rewarding things he has done as a chef.

“What is most fulfilling to me is, are you bettering the lives of the people around you? You can use your success to have a nice car, or you can use your success to impact a bunch of people,” he said. “I just have a feeling that 15 years from now I am not going to be looking back and  saying, ‘Did I drive a Range Rover, or did I impact 15,000 people?”

 

The chef’s circle

A Growing Great student discovers the joy of a fresh garden strawberry. Photo courtesy Growing Great

It all began with a single garden at Pacific Elementary School in 1999.

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District had received a small grant in order to plant a demonstration garden on the campus, and parent Marika Bergsund, an environmental attorney, volunteered to head the project. She quickly realized the potential to do something bigger, and within two years the district had obtained a $50,000 grant to plant gardens at the other five district elementary schools. In 2002, Bergsund recruited Curry to expand the program to nutrition education. Curry and another parent, Lori Sherman, wrote a comprehensive, standards-based nutrition and health curriculum for grades 3 through 5.

“Really how it started is parents really wanted their kids to have better school food service, and they wanted their kids to learn more,” Curry said. “And that is when Lori and I co-wrote the nutrition program for it. We started with five lessons for grades 3, 4, and 5.”

The program immediately resonated, not only with kids, who loved the combination of hands-on garden activities and classroom lessons that they could actually apply to their lives —  the empowerment of cooking, and eating well — but quickly trickled out to parents. The kids were going home so enthused that entire families began eating better.

“Parents really came together with the intention of helping our local community eat better, make better choices, and that’s what it was —  we inspired healthy eating through these nutrition and garden programs,” Curry said.

Growing Great became a non-profit in 2006 with the goal of expanding throughout LA County, beginning with programs in Torrance, L.A., Culver City, and the Wiseburn school district. In less than a decade, it expanded nationally, reaching schools in Nevada, New York, North Carolina, and Hawaii. At the heart of the program were 350 parent volunteers, who were trained by Growing Great both in nutrition and garden education.

Astella the gardener, a Growing Great student at Head Start School. Photo courtesy Growing Great

When Jovanovic arrived in late 2014, it had become apparent that the time had come to refocus. Growing Great’s success was unquestionable; the lives of several thousand kids throughout the country had been changed in the most fundamental way possible: they were eating better. But the rush of gardens that sprung up everywhere didn’t always last. The program depended on grants and volunteers; grants were subject to the whims of the economy and application success, and volunteers often came and went as their children graduated. Growing Great needed sustainability; further, its leadership wanted to take the program to places where the need was greatest but funding wasn’t available.

“At Growing Great, we get phone calls all the time from low-income districts where someone has put a garden in and it’s like, ‘Oops, which parent is going to garden this year?’” Jovanovic said. “So we went back to work.”

“Sustainability was huge,” Curry said. “A parent leaves, the garden dies.”

GrowingGreat founders, from left, Lori Sherman, Peggy Curry and Marika Bergsund. Photo courtesy Growing Great

The answer, as it usually is, was community. Growing Great had grown from the soil of the Manhattan Beach community, and as the organization sought to grow in a different way, it turned back to that community. In 2015, the Farm to Table Benefit grew into a greater community celebration. Lefevre led the charge. The event moved to 72andSunny and included chef’s demonstrations, live auctions that included private chef’s dinners (including one in which the high bidder takes a trip to Sonoma with Lefevre and Curry), and culminated in a masterpiece of a dinner prepared by Lefevre. In subsequent years, Lefevre would co-chair the event and tap into his network of chef friends.

“With chefs, I am not going to ask my peers that I really respect, and who I know how in demand they are, unless I am 100 percent confident in the experience they are going to have, and the impact they are going to have,” Lefevre said. “When I got involved and saw the impact and how great it was, the one thing I was really comfortable doing is calling people I really respected in the chef’s industry and asking for their participation. I have a dozen really, really close chef friends, who when I call them, they will say yes —  if the date is free, they will do it.”

Local restaurateur Mike Zislis, owner of Shade Hotel and Strand House, and his wife Andrea likewise co-chaired Farm to Table and tapped into their network of food friends. The result was a very unique and uniquely galvanizing event that over the next few years featured a roster of chefs who are among the most revered in the LA food world: Vartan Abgaryan (71Above), Nyesha Arrington, Michael Cimarusti (Providence), Josiah Citrin (Mélisse), Anne Conness (Jaffa, Sausal), Michael Fiorelli (Love & Salt), Neal Fraser (Redbird), Roy Garcia (Broken Spanish), Alan Jackson (Lemonade), Dustin Lewandowski (Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill) and Diana Stavaridis (Manhattan House).

“Because of that growth and the people that David brought in and his own enthusiasm, then our donors have that same enthusiasm too, then you have that kind of energy, then you can extend the impact of the organization,” Jovanovic said. “So you go from an organization that was just Manhattan Beach, and it took a while for the donors to understand, ‘Oh, we are going much beyond Manhattan Beach now.’”

Growing Great young gardeners. Photo courtesy Growing Great

The result, for the organization, was sustainable funding and greater reach. Beginning in 2017, the Growing Great began offering its program free of charge to low-income communities. Last year, Growing Great raised $374,000 and was able to reach 15,000 kids.

“It’s the funding we raise at the benefit, but it’s also the visibility we have, to be out there creating these partnerships —  at environmental charter schools, Maple Primary Centers, and other schools we have partnerships within these very low-income communities,” Jovanovic said. “So we can go there with confidence and know we have the funding to continue these programs. They start with us, they stay with us. We won’t just come into them and say, ‘You know what, we can’t do your garden this year because we didn’t get a grant.’ It’s the sustainability that David helps us have to continue these things.”  

“The bottom line is what David has done for the organization is catapulted us in a new arena,” Curry said. “Before, you had to pay for our programs, and we’ve always dreamed of being able to give our program to schools in food deserts, in communities where these kids would never be able to have this kind of program, of either nutrition or gardening, or know where their food is coming from. When we started doing Farm to Table, one of the things David was instrumental at was saying ‘Hey, let’s leverage the chef’s dinner, and we’ll raise a whole bunch of money.’”

This year’s event takes place Saturday, and for once, Lefevre will be there, but not making dinner. Chef Neal Fraser will handle those duties as the organization honors Lefevre.

“The thing is, he is a genuine champion of this organization,” Curry said. “You don’t find very many of them, especially at the caliber of what David has given…We just happen to be blessed to have him be part of Growing Great and be our champion in such a huge way that’s really changed the course of Growing Great and how many kids and families we can serve.”  

 

The champion

There is a reason that Growing Great has animated Lefevre. It’s about how pure and thoughtful Growing Great’s intentions are, of course, and how effective the organization is in bringing those goals to fruition. Ultimately, however, the chef’s involvement is about something beyond thought. It’s about love.

From the moment Lefevre arrived in Manhattan Beach with MB Post in 2011, it was clear something was different about this chef. Alyssa McArdle, who was hired four months after the restaurant opened, remembers that even the interviewing process was unusually rigorous —  two group interviews and a final one-on-one with the chef. After being hired, the first week of work was a training program that included points of service, education on every ingredient in every dish, and an organizational culture based on three fundamental tenets: respect, humility, and integrity.

“David and the Post organization were picky as hell and wanted to make sure that the people they brought into the fold were held to the highest of standards,” McArdle said. “I forget all of the tenets of the Post philosophy, but they were huge on integrity, accountability, being good neighbors and biggest of all providing a real, soulful human connection to anyone who walked in the door.”

When MB Post quickly took off and Lefevre was able to open up a second restaurant, Fishing With Dynamite, two doors down, he held a special staff meeting in which he made it clear that this was their success, too. But the chef also conveyed something else at that meeting.

“He said that he wanted us all to know that he is invested in us, too,” McArdle said. “That may be some of us, like him, lived for the restaurant world, but maybe for others there is something else we really, really want to do…and that either way, we should talk to him about it because he would love to see what he can do to get us there.”

His whole point, those around him realized, was about a larger sense of service. What can you do for others?

Then, McArdle recalled, one day Lefevre came back from a Growing Great event at which he’d done a demonstration in which he showed kids the three levels of pasta sauce: a standard jar of Prego, how you can make a good sauce with canned tomatoes if you have a little extra time, and how you can make the cheapest, healthiest and best sauce with fresh tomatoes.

Lefevre says now that in Growing Great he’d found an organization that mirrored his values and those of his own organization, but one through which he could reach kids and broaden his impact as a chef.

“You are talking about being influential at a point in someone’s life that sticks,” he said. “I mean, can’t remember some of the things I did in my 20s, but I can tell you about me taking home economics when I was in sixth grade and learning how to make apple fritters. I can tell you because it was a visceral experience. Or I can tell you about my mother teaching me how to make chowder when I was in seventh grade. I remember cooking dinner for prom for all of my friends when I was a senior. Food, you are not just doing it visually, you are not just doing it kinesthetically — you are doing it all, you are reading a recipe, you are using your hands, you are tasting it, you are using all of your senses, you are using your smell, using flavor, texture, and even hearing.”

“The reason I started to cook is I was hungry and I didn’t want to wait for anyone else to cook for me. But the moment I was hooked was when I cooked for someone else…It’s a way to show them you care.”

“It’s also a love language,” Curry said. “I mean for me, food is love. It’s always been that. And I think that is what David is about.”

Growing Great, then, isn’t just about education in the same way the statistics of childhood obesity are not just about health. It’s about an ever-widening circle of love, from one garden to many gardens, from one chef to many chefs.

Jessica Wilson at the first Farm to Table benefit, working with Executive Chef Dustin Lewandowski, from Wolfgang Puck. Photo courtesy Growing Great

A few weeks ago, a 20-year-old woman named Jessica Wilson graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. She became deeply interested in food in 3rd grade, at her school in Culver City, where she learned how to garden from Growing Great, and then began her own garden at home. She is Growing Great’s first chef.

“It definitely impacted my decision to become a chef,” Wilson said of Growing Great. “It definitely changed my path.”

The Growing Great Food to Table Benefit is April 27. For more information, see GrowingGreat.org.

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