Landon Walls, curbing his passion barely this side of a cartwheel, proudly flips through a slide presentation:
“We have our own chickens—We work with a local farm in South Tucson, so kids are out there actually practicing—We do a lot of cooking demonstrations—We cook a lot from our own food—That’s us introducing the aquaponic system—This is our trip to Willcox. I’ve never seen high-schoolers enjoy apples the way they did there!—Our own watermelon. Our own corn—We’re transplanting kale and parsley there—We’re juicing. Juicing is unbelievable. Kids love it!”
Half Hopi, registered Onondaga Iroquois through his grandmother, and a graduate of Arizona State University’s American Indian Studies program, Walls projects the budding roots of his vision in PowerPoint on a classroom wall, with the restless burble of the aquaponic system for a soundtrack.
These dreams barely had shape four years ago when he took over the Community-Based Education (CBE) program at Hiaki High School. The school is operated by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe on reservation land in collaboration with Chicanos por La Causa’s (CPLC) Community Schools. Walls says, “I wanted to work with Indian youth. My skills and my energy—I wanted to direct [them] toward a nation, a reservation, or tribal communities.”
He soon found inspiration in a gardening program at Hiaki’s sister school, CPLC’s Toltecalli High School in southwest Tucson. It was run by Oscar Medina, a young teacher with similar energy and goals who’s since joined the staff of the Western Institute for Leadership Development. Both men saw that teaching kids to grow food could lead to healthier living and even improved career readiness. Over time, they believed, what their students learned might even inspire a long-term community-wide shift toward a more sustainable lifestyle, including healthy food choices, food safety, outdoor exercise, and respect for what resources our desert environment provides.
Medina rolled up his sleeves to help Walls get his garden started, and shared with him the contacts and resources that had helped the Toltecalli program flourish. “Every connection really is coming from Toltecalli,” says Walls. “Once I get the connection, they understand my passion and my knowledge, what I’m trying to do here.”
Claudio Rodriguez, a staffer at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, bought into Walls’ program early and often. “The Food Bank knows everybody in Tucson,” Walls says. They donated irrigation tools and compost. They provided all the construction materials and tools, and helped the students build a chicken coop. They donated chickens. They conducted workshops and supplied curricula. They’ve even run errands for supplies.
Ace Charette, coordinator of the UA’s Early Academic Outreach Program, organized materials, installation, and curricula for aquaponics technology that offered students an opportunity for immediate, daily engagement while they seeded crops, started their chicken coops, and grew their trees.
Katie Gannon of Trees for Tucson provided 22 trees, including three kinds of palo verde and four varieties of mesquite. Native Seeds/SEARCH donates whatever seeds the program needs. The kids also learn to save seeds from the radish flower, and from inside their peppers, chiles, and tomatoes. They expect one day to return seeds from their surplus to their benefactor.
The program has even benefitted from an unexpected provider. “We had a parent one time come in with a huge bag,” Walls says. “She works at Fry’s, and so they had a bunch of seeds that weren’t selling any more—tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, stuff like that in little packets. And the student came in ‘Hey, Mr. Wall! Mr. Wall! I got these seeds for you!’”
Most of the school’s crops would be familiar to any home gardener, but two distinctly reflect Hiaki’s heritage: green corn—early-harvested, when it’s still “green”—and a variety of basil bearing the name the Pascua Yaqui call their people, Yoeme. Of the corn, Walls says, “It’s a special green corn from Magdalena, Mexico. So it’s nothing you could get in the grocery store.” The corn makes an impressive stand outside the classroom windows, he says. “The kids really missed it once we harvested.”
Because corn uses a lot of water, Walls plants this 90-day, green variety before the kids start school, in order to catch the free, clean monsoon rains. He teaches the class to dig and plant their crops in sunken beds to capture and hold as much water as possible. “Another step is to get water-harvesting cisterns,” Walls says. “That’s down the road.”
For one afternoon each month, the students learn the science and business behind commercial farming when they visit the farm of Chris and Don Breckenfeld of Breckenfeld Family Growers. Chris, an educator, and Don, a soil specialist, inspire the students with sustainable, environmentally sound practices for producing food crops in enough quantity to sell at farmers’ markets. “We analyze where he seeds the heirloom and organic produce,” Walls says. “We look at pesticides and different growing and watering techniques.”
Inside the classroom, students learn about how their fresh produce might influence the health of their families and community. They learn to read labels and to understand how different kinds of fats and sugars affect their bodies. They learn about additives, preservatives, and processes. They watch Food, Inc., and Fed Up. Holly Bryant, a registered dietician for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Diabetes Prevention and Treatment Program across the street, drops by weekly to talk about prevention and care, and to give cooking demonstrations. All of the students have family members and neighbors affected by the disease. Awareness gives them options for avoiding it themselves.
“Here’s my mentality,” Walls says. “After working for a couple of years on this now, I want to grow food that kids are familiar with, that they’re going to eat and use, and take home to their families. That is chiles, tomatoes, corn, zucchini, butternut squashes, acorn squashes—the families are going to eat that. They make stews. They have traditional soups. They use these certain vegetables.”
As for trying new things? “That’s where juicing comes in,” he says. “We did like a V-10, ten vegetables and fruits. My main base is apples. If you get apples in your juice, almost everything is going to turn out O.K.” Walls says he’s able to get plenty of apples left over from the cafeteria, but he also bases some juices on sweet and familiar beets and carrots the kids grow themselves. “Kids love carrots. It’s just amazing. I can’t grow enough carrots.” Then the juice might introduce a more exotic garden crop like Swiss chard. “Juicing really made the kids try it,” Walls says. “If they grow it, they’ll at least try it.”
“What we learn, we can teach to another generation. That way we can stay healthy and the kids can know what beautiful, good vegetables really are.”
— Student Gina Flores
Teenagers are singular humans, full of themselves and thirsty for the world. A day in each life can go either way. Walls invests his hope in influencing one student at a time. “I want them to teach the next generation—their cousins, their children. I want gardens in people’s homes. This is what we’re trying to do with the school. We create a model here, and it’s really student-made. Imagine the impact.” ✜
Hiaki High School. 4747 W. Calle Vicam. 520.883.5051.
Linda Ray has written for the Tucson Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Reader. She and her valiant pup, Gozo, live in an unmanageable landscape in Central Tucson.
In the May/June issue, this article misidentified Holly Bryant as a registered nurse. She is a registered dietitian for the Pascua Yaqui Diabetes Treatment and Prevention Program.