by Cory Brennan
Cory Brennan, a new contributor to HopeDance, writes about a stunning and awe-inspiring individual, Adonijah Miyamura, who has been teaching food forestry for 25 years and is aiding others in transforming minds and lots into lush yards of food and nutrition and empowerment.
Imagine walking into a high school yard in South Central Los Angeles and finding … a jungle: Tall, thick banana trees overflowing with bananas, ten varieties of mango trees from ten different countries, guava, cheramoya, zapote, blackberries from Central America, mulberries from Afghanistan, persimmons, peaches, cherries, all flourishing under fast growing Chinese fire dragon trees acting as the jungle canopy. Interspersed amongst the trees and the organic mass beneath one can find wild celery, lettuce, swiss chard, arugula, nasturtium, tropical flowers, and herbs. This is no ordinary jungle, but a food forest, growing on the campus of Crenshaw High School in Crenshaw, California.
High school students come into the jungle to raid the fruit trees and berry bushes, and also to work – transplanting seedlings, planting trees, distributing compost, and learning permaculture, biointensive gardening and West African indigenous growing techniques.
How did this magical place in the middle of inner city Los Angeles appear? This was the vision of one man, Adonijah Miyamura, who did perform somewhat of a miracle, creating a mature food forest from an almost barren lot in less than four years with no formal funding and little cooperation from the school.
Adonijah has been spreading the word about food forestry in the city for 25 years. He attended Crenshaw High School as a youth and wanted the new generation to know about permaculture and food forestry. He saw the nutrition-poor diets they were on, the video game lives they led, and their isolation from natural life. He felt they needed to grow things with their own hands and see what it takes to create soil that makes swiss chard grow seven feet tall, lettuce stay vibrant and healthy even in a heat wave with little water, and cherry trees produce 200 pounds of fruit every year, next to banana trees that overflow with their own edible version.
It hasn’t been an easy task – Adonijah has seen five administrations come and go since he arrived in 2001. He saw funding for programs such as his dry up in the Los Angeles school district before he really got started, and has funded the creation and maintenance of the forest from his own pocket and community donations, for the most part. There has been vandalism and theft. In spite of these barriers, he has made his food forest a centerpiece of the community – a central well where people can go to get their hands dirty in live soil, to take home fresh exotic fruits from around the world, to meet each other and network, to learn about gardening and food forestry, and to exchange heirloom seeds, some of them, like sasparilla, kept in families from the South generation after generation back to the days when slavery was still legal.
“When you are paying for a program like this out of your pocket, you tend to get very creative at doing things for free or almost no cost,” says Adonijah. He has acquired truckloads of manure, sawdust, organic material, trees, seedlings, pots and just about everything else he has needed through his community contacts. In return, he has planted food forests in people’s yards for free or for the cost of materials, spreading the knowledge and the wealth.
The benefits to students are both obvious and intangible. “Students come here and hear birds singing that been absent from their neighborhood for years but came back to the forest. We don’t remove the brush and trim the bushes – we deliberately take the youth into the brush so they can experience something of what the natural world is really like,” says Adonijah as we slip off the path and squeeze between trees and bushes, stepping over logs and wading through leaves and sticks. “Youth are so removed from anything real these days, lost in their MP 3 players or video games, watching TV, and eating plastic food. This is real.”
From certain angles, it’s difficult to see anything but green life in this one acre forest. “This is an ecosystem – it brought birds, bees, butterflies and many other life forms back to a place they had abandoned for the most part. It benefits the whole neighborhood.”
The school now has a science program that uses the jungle and Adonijah’s expertise to bring subjects such as Biology, Environmental Science, Introduction to Agriculture, Plant and Soil Science, and Agricultural Tech alive. The magnet program includes Advanced Placement Environmental Science, Advanced Placement Biology and Honors Chemistry, offering Crenshaw High students a road into college and career pathways.
Natalie Harris, a teacher at Crenshaw High, is the STEMM Academy Coordinator (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math and Medicine) for the school and runs the science magnet program. She has caught Adonijah’s vision and is very supportive of it. Outspoken and passionate about her students, she has brought her own strengths and viewpoints to the program.
“We have 1500 kids failing one subject or another, and you can’t keep using the same stale matrix in the face of that kind of massive failure. The problem with achievement is the curriculum itself, not the students. It isn’t relevant to these kids, it does not provide or fit with any real context. The programs being pushed into these schools are “college prep” classes that align with careers like doctor, lawyer, accountant. Well, the majority of these youth don’t want to be doctors, lawyers and accountants! Those are not the only jobs in this society that are worth something. We need some “real life” programs for these students – they need to know what their options and choices are. The food forestry program gives them an opportunity to interface with the community and learn about something that is essential and basic for all of us – food.”
In the forest, Adonijah gives a tour to students. He offers a handful of his rich, black soil for inspection, discussing the minerals and vitamins that this provides to plants, and the importance of live, nutritious food for health. Natalie can personally attest to the nutritional value of Adonijah’s food – she has been feeding her eight year old son smoothies and salads from the forest, and attributes his athletic prowess (he competes against teenagers and wins), at least in part to his healthy diet.
Adonijah and Natalie have big plans for the future. Through their non-profit organization, the George Washington Carver Institute, they are working with a local foundation currently to get funding to repair a greenhouse and outbuilding on the property, so that the students can grow food from seedlings, and then prepare and sell it in a commercial kitchen, gaining experience in multiple fields in the process. They plan to expand the community exchange program, creating more opportunities for students to interface with the community. Adonijah is creating a business that includes a nursery, salad production for gourmet restaurants, home food forestry creation, and seminar delivery that students could transition to and make a decent living at. He has apprenticed dozens of students in the art of permaculture and indigenous growing techniques and sometimes they tell him, years later, how he saved their lives.
“People in this community consider Adonijah to be a spiritual leader – he has singlehandedly changed so many things about the community for the better,” Natalie says. “He deserves support – he could do so much more with additional assistance and more funding.”
Meanwhile, in the schoolyard, Adonijah continues to create permanent culture in South Central Los Angeles with his food forest. Today, on a Saturday, there are volunteers working the soil side by side from multiple economic stratas, races and cultures. A former student drops in and updates Adonijah on his life. An elder from the community stops by to exchange seeds. People come to pick up fruit trees from his tree giveaway program, and he gives them instruction on how to plant them, along with handfuls of loquats from the overflowing harvest.
For more information about the Crenshaw High School program, food forestry in LA, or how you can get involved or contribute, contact: Cory Brennan, [email protected] .