The concept of sustainability has been a part of the fabric of many Westside communities long before it became en vogue to much of the nation in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Growing food organically, initiating water purification systems and using less plastic seems to be as common in places like Santa Monica and Venice as sunshine is to both beachside communities.

Since 2002, students at Venice High School have been learning to implement some of these concepts at the Learning Garden. Students studying horticulture get the opportunity to learn firsthand about nutrition, water recycling techniques and other sustainable approaches to everyday living.

But like most public and private entities, the economic recession has touched the Learning Garden, which operates exclusively on donations and grants.

A recent grant acquired by the school and a community benefit grant from the Mar Vista Community Council will provide the garden and the student body additional opportunities to learn lessons on the intricacies of gardening, organic food and sustainability. In addition, it will give residents of neighboring communities a chance to commune with nature in an urban environment.

But funding for the garden and the school’s horticulture program will likely run out in June, and David King is hoping that he and those who enjoy spending time with the 60 fruit trees, vegetables and various native plants will still have a place to indulge their passion.

King, the garden master at the Learning Garden, has been on the funding roller coaster before.

“We’ve got money in the bank that will last until this summer, and after that it’s a crapshoot,” King said during an interview at the garden, located near the west side of the high school campus.

The high school recently obtained a Culinary Arts and Sustainable Agriculture Academy grant, which helped the school establish a culinary academy.

“The Learning Garden is up and running and in full bloom,” Venice High Principal Lonnie Wallace told The Argonaut earlier this month.

Horticulture teacher Diane Pollock has students who are in the new culinary academy and says many of her pupils initially are taken aback when they visit the garden for the first time.

“They’re a very limited range to what they are exposed to,” Pollock said. “Many of them are not accustomed to the intense flavor of the vegetables when they first taste them.”

King says that even those who choose not to go into the culinary arts can derive tangible benefits from the academy.

“You can’t expect everyone to be a chef, but if they can come out of that program eating more vegetables fixed healthily, then you’ve changed their lives in real and tangible ways,” King said.

Pollock says she has seen firsthand how being around plants, flowers and organic food can give even the most disinterested teen a new way of looking at sustainable living and the importance of organic gardening and harvesting.

“When they plant something and it grows, it’s a whole new experience for them,” she said.

Wallace says students who work in the garden augment their regular classes by learning about sustainability, nutrition and horticulture.

“Working in a garden with their other core teachers supplements what they are learning in conjunction with the rest of their curriculum,” said the principal.

The horticulture program received a boost on February 26th when actress Olivia Wilde of the medical television drama “House” donated $1,000 to the school. Wilde, who is affiliated with the Environmental Media Association, spent time planting in the garden with Pollock’s students.

“That will sustain us until the end of the semester,” the horticulture teacher said of the donation. “I’ll have to spend the summer looking for more grants.”

The program received grants in past years from the Los Angeles Unified School District. But last year, Pollock says the district changed its rules regarding how it awards grant money for what is called career tech funding and the program did not qualify.

The Mar Vista Community Council has also stepped in to help the garden. Kate Anderson, a co-chair of the council’s Education, Arts and Culture Committee, brought a motion before her colleagues in January to secure a $2,200-plus community grant to pay for two waterwise demonstration gardens at the high school.

“(The Learning Garden) is exactly the kind of community resource that we should be supporting,” Anderson said.

Albert Olson, the council’s chair, thinks the community project is money well spent.

“There is such a great need for things like the Learning Garden in the community in terms of training children about sustainable produce and green gardening,” Olson said. “When people like (Learning Garden volunteer) Marianne Brown take the time to provide this learning experience, it’s incredibly valuable.”

Another recent donation came from Kellogg Gardening Products, which delivered fertilizers, potting soil and a variety of other gardening materials to the school last month.

“We really needed that,” Pollock said.

Students from Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine also visit the garden, which has medicinal, homeopathic and Native American plants. Venice and Mar Vista residents have a small community garden there as well, and volunteers assist King with his work on maintaining the community resource.

The Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica is another beneficiary of the garden’s bounty. According to the Environmental Media Association, an organization comprised of environmentally conscious members of the entertainment industry, the food bank receives up to 300 pounds a week from the garden.

Despite the recent donations and grants, both King and Pollock are still searching for money to sustain the Learning Garden. King took a job offsite in 2006 due to a reduction in donations and grants, but he would like to remain with the garden this time.

“I have the sense that this will come to good if I stay this time,” King said. “Good things are worth sustaining, and this garden is a good thing.”

Pollock said there are so many aspects of life that are taught in the garden that are immeasurable.

“It teaches (the students) sustainability and social responsibility,” she concluded. “And that’s invaluable.”

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