Back to the garden

Rob Gaon

SN&R Photo By Anne Stokes

Rob Gaon lives by the notion that “if you align your life with what matters to you, you’ll find all the support you need.” After years in the fashion industry, Gaon realized he was more concerned with what people put in their bodies than with what they put on them. He started getting into the earth, first in his own garden, then in the community at large. Last September, he launched a school garden program at St. Michael’s Episcopal Day school. In addition to his myriad plans for the garden—including a Healthy School Lunch program to reinvent cafeteria food—he also participates in the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program.

For information on creating and sustaining your own school garden, visit the California School Gardens Network at

What inspired you to create a school garden?

I started gardening when I first moved to Sacramento eight years ago and found it to be such a creative, spiritual outlet. With that came an awareness of service—sharing what I love in a way that feeds others. My stepdaughter goes to school at St. Michael’s, which is very into teaching the kids how to be better stewards to the planet. So I proposed the idea of a school garden to the headmaster and, after about eight months, he got behind it.

What’s your involvement in the Master Gardener Program?

The program is designed to serve the community. So after I finish the program, I’m committed to 50 hours of annual service work. It’s a way for the state to manage the gardening issues of the community in a very affordable and responsible way. And as a volunteer, I also get to learn more about gardening through amazing books, lectures and field trips.

How have the kids responded to the garden?

The kids are naturally drawn to it. They light up when they’re out there. The thrill of pulling a carrot out of the ground—or a strawberry or a snap pea or chard—and washing it off and eating it! They’re just so open to experimenting. They still might not like it, but they love knowing that they’ve been a part of the whole process, from seed to harvest.

The garden is a terrific outdoor classroom. A lot of kids have a hard time with the traditional classroom environment. They get anxious and wily. So this provides them a more hands-on, experiential way to learn. We coordinate lesson plans ranging from science to art to history, and the classroom “garden parent” co-teaches the curriculum. Right now we’re working on a Roman herb garden, so we’re bringing in art from the period, researching where the herbs came from and how they were used medicinally.

How has the school garden changed the lunch program at St. Michael’s?

I started working with “Gramma Fay,” who’s been the head of the cafeteria program at St. Michael’s for 15 years. Our initial goal was to get rid of hydrogenated oils and, wherever we could, eliminate sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. We’ve taken all chicken fat and chicken stock from her soups, so she makes these phenomenal vegetarian-based soups that are filled with the chard, carrots and onion from the garden. We’re replacing white bread with whole-grain, Skippy peanut butter with Kirkland’s Organic. … We found that most jams have a ton of sugar, but we weren’t finding any affordable replacements. So we figured, “Hey, everybody’s fruit ripens within a two-week period. Let’s get all the surplus fruit from the community’s harvest and make our own preserves and fruit rolls.”

Have the kids resisted the shift to healthier foods?

We’re doing test trials. If we get 40, 50 percent positive feedback, we’re going to serve it as part of the meal. I’m sure some things will be total flops—but, so what, we tried.

The key is to educate the kids and the parents to eat a healthier, more well-balanced diet. If we raise kids on garbage, we’re not teaching them to respect their bodies as the temples they are. Then we end up with the problems we’re seeing now: obesity, diabetes, diseases of the Western diet. We’re disconnected from our food source. And we can’t afford to be, not only for our health, but in terms of water and oil supply, inhumane animal practices and waste issues. If you want to make a difference, just look at your diet: where can I eliminate some meat? I can choose organic. I can support a local farmer. Because the fossil fuels it takes for that lettuce from Mexico to get to the supermarket are exorbitant. It’s the small things that can make an enormous impact. It’s all tied together.

What else is in store for the garden project?

This garden has an unlimited creative horizon. The seventh and eighth graders are going to run a farmers’ market each month for the parents to buy fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables. We’re going to grow rosemary and lavender, harvest the lavender for oils, and make rosemary wreaths around the holidays for fund raisers. It’s really the perfect playground.